Advanced Topics in School Siting

Update: This item came back to MPAC last night, and I ultimately voted in favor of it. Interestingly, yesterday’s Oregonian featured an article on how the Beaverton School District had at least temporarily gotten around the challenge by jointly purchasing a parcel with two developers with the understanding that it would be partitioned after comprehensive planning.

I had the opportunity to ask Beaverton Schools officials at the meeting if this was an alternate model that could avoid the need for changing Title 11. The most convincing part of the response was “we’re not land speculators.”

At MPAC earlier in the week, we took up a topic that I hadn’t really ever thought through before: how to site schools in areas newly added to the Urban Growth Boundary.

The issue in front of us was an amendment to Metro’s Title 11, which governs newly added lands. The basic rule is that when land comes inside the UGB, you can’t subdivide it below 20 acre parcels until the comprehensive planning gets done. The idea is to keep the land from being carved up so much that major uses cannot be sited.

The amendment, being pushed by several school districts, was to create an exception for schools and other public uses (parks, fire stations, etc.). The motivation was to allow a school district to go in and buy a school site (probably much less than 20 acres) while the land is still cheap. Of course, the district still can’t build the school until after the zoning gets done. But by then the prices have gone up.

I made the point that schools are anchors for communities and we want to site them as part of the comprehensive planning, so we don’t wind up with families having to drive their kids to school, or do remediation efforts like “Safe Routes to School” after we disconnect them from the transportation network.

The counter-argument is that a district wouldn’t plunk down their scare resources to bank the land unless they had done a lot of consultation and could make a pretty good guess at the basic outlines of the comp plan. Worst case, if they guessed wrong, they could sell the parcel and buy the appropriate one. By buying early, their parcel would likely appreciate about equally with the one they eventually need.

Good idea? Bad idea?

12 responses to “Advanced Topics in School Siting”

  1. School siting is a critical transportation issue — some estimate that 10-20% of the traffic in the morning is caused by people driving their kids somewhere (usually to school). Because many of the transportation costs are carried by those outside the school district’s budget (the state, cities, and parents), transportation impacts tend to be an undervalued component.

    Furthermore, I’m not really sure that the market won’t just adjust to the new law — I imagine that prices may go up pre-comp planning to adjust to the idea that you have buyers. And if schools and parks are allowed to transfer land to other folks, the prices will get even closer to post-planning prices.

    But I’m open to learning more and hearing other opinions

  2. It seems like there would be some benefit in a school or park district just buying the 20-acre parcel (i.e., not requiring the new exception). By the time they subdivided after comp planning, they would yield appreciation on the pieces they sold off, helping fund their new site construction.

    Of course, that assumes the district has the financial strength to buy and hold for a while, which may not be true.

    Thorny problem.

  3. What would be great is if they would buy the 20 acre parcel and develop a “knowledge village” around it (planned hand in hand with the comp. plan of course) including libraries, parks, community services, shops, offices, housing, etc. They could stand to make a ton of money, something they’re quite short of I hear. It would require very progressive leadership.

  4. “we’re not land speculators.”

    Maybe they should be, or work with people who are, tough problems call for tough thinking.

  5. I think that would be moving in the wrong direction. I already believe that PPS makes poor decisions (closing local neighborhood schools) from an educational and community perspective because they are saddled with the challenge of being property managers.

    I’m thinking I would prefer a model in which cities provided classroom space as a function of infrastructure (like roads, parks and sewers) and school districts just delivered education in that space. This would put the siting decision into a context that would reflect the reality that in many cases a school is a key neighborhood facility and let it be prioritized on that basis, not on the basis of minimizing cost for the district.

    If we treated parks the way we treat schools, we’d might have to drive just to get our kids to a swing set…

  6. Chris,
    I think I agree with your basic suggestion here, which is more or less to privatize the buildings that house PPS, or at least take the property & land management out of PPS hands. This would allow the properties to be used more or less 24/7, with PPS just getting priority usage during the school day and for extracurricular activities as needed.

    MLC operates more on this principle than most. It’s called a community school. Adult night classes take place there, as well as adult swim in the basement pool.

    Perhaps PPS could also stand to make some cash by selling all their properties to the City in return for an agreement to use them rent-free in perpetuity. Call it another one-time cash infusion into the school district. The city would gain all the buildings as community/educational centers, the district would lose management/maintenance costs, and maybe some currently closed schools could re-open using fewer than all of the classrooms within the building. (!!)


    Could this then be, as you suggested, a model for new UGB-expanded areas?


  7. Garlynn is suggesting that facilities ownership and management be outsourced. I think it’s a brilliant idea, but we need to be honest about what to call it.

    And outsourcing has its down sides. I’d prefer to have a private company rather than the City manage the property, because it’s much easier to fire an incompetent private manager, and – I’m trying to put this gently – there are folks who will never criticize the City because they think it’s disloyal, and that means the City is allowed to screw up more than it should. (I leave aside folks who delight in criticizing the City whether it’s deserved or not.)

    Dedicated organizations generally do a better job than multi-function organizations. Look at Multnomah County’s poor management of its property assets for an example.

    I would echo Beaverton’s caution – don’t get schools involved in land speculation. It’s not their core competency, and the odds they’ll be taken advantage of are high. Imagine the voter backlash when the local school district has to cut programs because they took a bath in a land speculation.

    I do like Beaverton’s solution – jointly buy the larger parcel and expect to divvy it up later.

    One question – why the big delay between UGB expansion and comp planning? Wouldn’t speeding that up reduce the risks to the schools?

  8. Tom, we appear to both agree that schools shouldn’t be in property management, but we’re headed in opposite direction. My argument for City ownership is that schools are key civic facilities. Would you outsource ownership of City Hall or Forest Park?

    As to the speed of planning issue, you must have left the MPAC meeting too early. That issue has been on the agenda for the last two months – there’s no money to pay for it, which is why Metro is considering a surcharge on building permits and the homebuilders are probably going to go along with it.

  9. Yeah, I would agree with Chris on this for another reason — passing management to the City, rather than to a private entity, does not add a profit motive to the mix. The City could, at its discretion, continue to operate the property at a loss, for the purpose of providing a community service to its residents. A private entity would need to raise rates in order to subsidize an operating profit to justify its existence.

    Fundamentally, there is no room for profiteering when it comes to our children’s education, so there is no reason to privatize any portion of the school system. A transfer of ownership from one governmental institution, the school system, whose core mission is to educate children, to another institution, the City, whose core mission is to provide services to its residents, is simply an aknowledgement that one governmental agency may be more competent in some areas than another.

    I will not take the bait and say that I don’t trust the City of Portland to perform a mission as tasked. I think the City really is quite good at just about everything it does (with a few exceptions existing to make the rule), and I certainly would trust it to do this task as well.

  10. I disagree. I strongly believe that a private business is much more efficient at anything than the government. Perhaps this is better left for the education forums, but there was a not very surprising study a while ago that showed that private schools, elementary, middle, or high, provide the same or better quality of education, for a lower price. Simply because they ARE looking for a profit they are able to run things much more efficiently.

  11. Garlynn, if there’s “no room for profiteering” in education, do teachers try to increase their pay? ;-)

    But you shouldn’t presume outsourcing must mean for-profit, if you have a religious objection to honest profit.

    Indianapolis “outsourced” their street maintenance to their own existing employees, in a joint project with AFSCME. It’s sometimes called “progressive management” and it led to huge cost savings, better pay and morale, and a huge win overall, except for the middle management fat that was cut. (Republican patronage jobs, as it turns out.)

    The key elements are specialization, focus, accountability, and freedom to choose new ways and means to achieve agreed ends.

    One reason to consider outsourcing ownership of classrooms could be to increase their usage, as a previous commenter suggested. Not relevant to Forest Park, though outsourcing maintenance for parks is absolutely worth considering.

    OHSU’s billing department did something similar a few years ago (again with AFSCME) but I haven’t heard the results yet.

    Chris – yes, I caught that part of both recent MPAC meetings that covered the topic. I was trying to look at a larger picture than just the 6,000 acres brought in since 2002 – if there is a systemic delay (which Mayor Hughes seemed to doubt) then it probably deserves a systemic solution, otherwise it’ll recur. My question was intended to be, Are schools paying more (i.e. too much) as an unanticipated side effect of a systemic delay in comp planning?

    I’m hopeful that Metro’s answer will work, despite my aversion to taxes, but it still makes me curious just how much money it takes to plan properly, and where the efficiencies are. (That question’s an occupational hazard with me.)

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