Back in January, we recommended a change in conditional use triggers for school grade changes, settling on a standard that would require conditional use review when adding lower grades to a middle school, but NOT when adding middle-school grades to an elementary school. The logic of this was that when adding younger students (as young as kindergarten) to an environment previously occupied by teens and pre-teens, a review of transportation safety issues was important. Our review was prompted by zoning complaints driven from the K-8 conversion process, which the Bureau of Development Services felt it could not effectively process against the old code standards which were based on the junior-high model of grades rather than the more current middle-school model. Planning Commission was asked to review and recommend changes to the code.
Apparently Superintendent Carole Smith of Portland Public Schools has some issues with our recommendation. In a letter received late last week by City Council and Planning Commission she takes our recommendation to task. I’d like to take the opportunity to respond to Superintendent Smith’s points here. The issue will be at City Council this Thursday (4/22, 3pm time certain).
To get everyone on the same page, here are the relevant documents:
My first issue is in the Superintendent’s statement of current zoning regulations:
As has been documented in the work of the Schools and Parks Conditional Use Code Refinement Project, PPS has been using the State of Oregon’s definition of elementary schools (grades K-8) and high school (grades 9-12) in our grade level change process. As the City’s Zoning Code does not define what grades constitute a school level, PPS did not seek a conditional use review when grade level changes were made to implement the K-8 conversion as we did not believe this review was required. PPS did not knowingly attempt to circumvent City land use review process.
Saying the zoning code does not define grade levels is not quite accurate. Here’s the existing code (emphasis mine):
Change of school level. Changes from an elementary to a middle or junior high or to a high school, or from a middle or junior high to a high school are reviewed through a Type III procedure. Changes from a high school to a middle or junior high or to an elementary school, or from a middle or junior high to an elementary school are reviewed through a Type II procedure. Changes from a middle to a junior high, or from a junior high to a middle school are allowed by right.
I’m not a land-use lawyer, but I think a reasonable person would read that code and conclude that there are three distinct sets of grades called out and in combining middle schools with younger grades, a review would likely be required. To conclude otherwise seems very convenient. It’s true that the code does not include specific grade ranges (e.g., K-5 or 9-12), but I think the intent is pretty clear.
But my larger concern is with the description of intent of the conditional use criteria and the City’s jurisdiction. From the letter:
My understanding of the City’s zoning code regulations related to schools is that they are largely designed to protect surrounding neighborhoods from the impacts of schools – including the traffic and other activities that schools bring. I am not aware of City conditional use regulations that are designed specifically to protect students within our schools.
The conditional use approval criteria for transportation are (again, emphasis mine):
2. The transportation system is capable of supporting the proposal in addition to the existing uses in the area. Evaluation factors include street capacity, level of service, and other performance measures; access to arterials; connectivity; transit availability; on-street parking impacts; access restrictions; neighborhood impacts; impacts on pedestrian, bicycle, and transit circulation; safety for all modes; and adequate transportation demand management strategies;
I believe this code, and any rational transportation policy, require an interest by the City in the safety of students on their way to and from school! The School District does not control the environment through which children travel to school, and Planning Commission unanimously felt that a conditional use review was a very appropriate way to ensure that the School District and City have a substantive conversation about proposed changes and their impacts.
I would also note that if parents of younger children feel the environment for walking or biking to school is NOT safe, they are likely to drive their young students to school. And the additional traffic so generated would indeed impact the surrounding neighborhood.
I’m not alone in my view on this, Portland Bureau of Transportation staff have confirmed to us the importance of these issues.
I’m convinced that the City has a compelling interest in these issues on both fronts: the safety of students on the way to and from school, and the impacts on surrounding neighborhoods.
The Superintendent goes on to suggest that fully funding the Safe Routes to Schools program for all schools would adequately deal with these issues. I couldn’t agree more that this program should be fully funded for every school, but that is not the case today and I don’t believe that it is sufficient by itself or replaces thoughtful review as young students are added to a new environment.
Finally, the Superintendent goes to some pains to be clear that the zoning code is not an appropriate venue for debate of school programming choices. I completely agree. While we heard a lot of testimony from citizens concerned about school changes on the basis of equity, speaking as one Commissioner, let me be clear that my motivation was focused on transportation safety for the students, not trying to drive educational decisions.
I hope concerned parents and other citizens will share their views on this subject at City Council this Thursday.