See if this sounds familiar:

* New school construction is dramatically raising property taxes.

* New schools are used to attract families with students to sprawling areas.

* Building new facilities to combat overcrowding can accelerate development that prices young families out of the market.

* Architects and financial advisers heavily influence school construction decisions.

* Building a new school costs more than renovating an older one.

* School location decisions are often made without considering local government master plans and frequently place new schools in farmland areas that should be preserved.

* School construction on undeveloped sites generates many new expenses for infrastructure and government services, which eventually raise taxes for business and property owners.

No, these conclusions weren’t in a report about school construction in Shelby County, but they could have been. Rather, they were contained in Hard Lessons: Causes and Consequences of Michigan’s School Construction Boom published by the Michigan Land Use Institute.

Development impact

It was the first in-depth review of how school construction decisions are made in that state, their effects on development patterns and the negative impact on taxes. The report grew out of a joint project of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Land Use Institute which set out to help school officials, community leaders, homeowners and citizens evaluate the full cost of new school construction.

The organizations began the study out of a concern that school construction was encouraging Michigan’s sprawl. Like Shelby County, Michigan’s population was growing slowly and yet it was one of the fastest sprawling states in the U.S. with land being consumed at a rate eight times greater than population growth.

As an article by Michigan Land Use Institute puts it: “Business and government leaders recognize that spread-out growth patterns are increasing taxes and fees that pay for expanding infrastructure, hurting the cities left behind and diminishing the quality of life as open space is paved over.” The cause: “ever-bigger schools ever farther out of town.”


Just as the findings were relevant to Shelby County, so were some of the recommendations:

1) School districts should acquire more independent technical assistance when assessing the true needs for building new schools or modernizing old ones. School boards should encourage the community to play a role in discussions about how to best provide facilities, preferably in town.

2) The renovation of schools should be set as the top priority, constructing new schools in existing neighborhoods the next priority and constructing schools in green field locations the last resort. Schools should conserve land and reduce costs through more efficient site design and in sharing fields, stadiums and recreational facilities among different schools and the community.

3) School districts must ensure safe routes to school so students can walk or ride bicycles to class and after-school activities.

4) School districts must be required to submit site plans to local planning departments for review to assure they are consistent with local master plans.

5) School districts should obtain independent assessments that provide accurate information about the costs of both renovation and new construction.

All of this makes the point that in this community, we don’t take the discussion to a higher elevation where we can address the big picture, rather than deal with a small piece of it. Our major civic conversation is about how to pay for the schools (and that’s an important one to be having), but missing from the discussion is what we want our investments in education to produce – in the classroom, in the neighborhoods around the schools and in the county as a whole.

Over the past 20 years, we have had committees upon committees that have examined school districts structure and funding formulas. But, there’s never been a committee that developed a vision of what education ought to be in this community, what its priorities should be, what its guiding principles would be, what we would do to make it happen and what we would consider success.

A Longer View

Instead, we lurge from one crisis to the next, never changing our focus to consider the larger issues like those examined in Michigan – development patterns, land use policies and master planning.

There are a number of policies that could improve communications here between governmental agencies involved in school decisions, but more importantly, there are policies that could increase public credibility.

For example, the State of Tennessee should establish standards for determining school capacities so that all districts use the same formula to establish the number of students who can optimally attend a school. Now, the city school district calculates capacities more in keeping with national practice while the county school district does it in a way that always portrays its schools as overcrowded. In the end, the inconsistency only confuses the public debate about schools and leaves the impression with taxpayers that both districts are setting capacities in the same way.

Meanwhile, at a local level, as long as Shelby County Schools isn’t required to submit its new school locations to local planning officials or conform to plans that are already on the books, Shelby County Government continues to pay the price for sprawl that it has no voice in causing.

In the end, what’s needed is for education in Shelby County to be known more for its planning and purpose than for its politics and power.