Schools and sprawl

Listen, I’m not going to quibble over whether the school board paid too much for the site of a future school in Jonesville.

I won’t argue that the board broke faith earmarking money for a “someday” school that voters clearly intended to be spent rehabbing the schools we already have.

I’m not even going to take issue with the logic of laying out $3.68 million for land that won’t be used for a decade while we’re in the middle of a pandemic that is likely to cripple school district budgets for years to come.

I do question, however, school board member Rob Hyatt’s defense of the purchase on the grounds that “there will be a need for a new school on the Jonesville property within 10 years.”

I’ve got to ask, Rob:

Is it the policy of the Alachua County School District to blindly chase suburban and exurban sprawl no matter the costs?

Or is it possible that the school district is itself promoting sprawl by announcing its intention to accommodate new development wherever it goes?

We know that the availability of good schools is a major consideration when it comes to buying a home.

And we can be fairly certain that for the next 10 years, realtors looking to sell homes in Jonesville and beyond will be telling young families and parents-to-be that “new schools are on the way, so better buy now before prices go up.”

Which is a much better sales pitch than “of course, you will have to put your kids on a school bus.”

A policy paper titled “Education and Smart Growth,” makes the case that chasing growth with new schools is a recipe for fiscal and educational calamity. Among other impacts, “a new school on a distant site can act as a growth magnet, helping draw people out of older urban neighborhoods and into new subdivisions on the metropolitan fringe.

“It is well understood that school quality determines where many families will choose to locate within a region. If new schools are being built on the edge of town and they are perceived to be superior, as new schools often are, then families who can afford the move will often relocate…

“Even families without school age children are impacted as school quality has a significant influence on residential property values.”

In an article titled “School Sprawl,” planner Edward T. McMahon argues that “Construction of large schools on the outskirts of communities not only gobbles up land, it is rarely cost effective. The cost of new school construction is frequently higher than rehabilitation or building additions onto existing schools.”

One consequence of school sprawl, McMahon writes, is that “all over the country smaller, old schools are being closed in favor of bigger, new schools in far flung locations.”

Say, whatever happened to Prairie View Elementary anyway?

This community already has a well documented achievement gap that runs largely along east-west and urban-suburban lines. Continuing to build new schools to serve ever more distant wealthier and whiter suburbs will only exacerbate that gap.

And it’s not necessary. If the state of Florida has done anything over the past decade or more it has been to promote “school choice” in the form of private schools, religious-backed schools, charter schools, home schooling and more.

Parents do have a choice, and the notion that our school district is by itself capable of providing “neighborhood” schools for all regardless of location, distance or sprawl development is ultimately an exercise in fiscal and educational bankruptcy.

Charles Marohn, president of Strong Towns, calls suburban development a “Ponzi scheme,” wherein “the local unit of government benefits immediately from all the permit fees, utility charges, and increased tax collection…” but ultimately acquires “long-term liability for servicing and maintaining all the new infrastructure.”

“A near-term cash advantage for a long-term financial obligation is one element of a Ponzi scheme,” he writes.

Whether the school district deliberately promotes sprawl or simply chases it the end result is the same. Board members are buying into a Ponzi scheme.

Author: floridavelocipede

A sometime journalist who used to string words together for a living before I retired to run a non-profit cycle touring organization that will henceforth go unnamed, as I have subsequently retired from that career as well. I write a bi-monthly column, theater reviews and an occasional magazine piece for my old newspaper. If I still had a business card it would read: Ron Cunningham: Trained Observer Of The Human Condition. Because like The Donald, you know, ego.

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