EPA’s New School Siting Guidelines Hit a Home Run with Preservation Community

October 05, 2011 | Written By:

Today, we have a guest post from Renee Kuhlman, who directs the Helping Johnny Walk to School project at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Thanks to Renee for this great and timely post!

It was with trepidation that I started reading EPA’s voluntary School Siting Guidelines this morning. Like Healthy Schools Campaign, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and other preservation organizations submitted many suggestions to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the public comment period for these guidelines.  I wondered how — and even if — their new tool for local education authorities, tribes, and states would address the preservation community’s concerns about rehabilitating schools in a way that sustains our older communities. 

Those sitting around me were probably startled by my small whoops of excitement. That’s right — excitement over a 143-page federal document. 

More importantly, I think anyone who strives for “healthy and safe learning environments that also meet other community goals”— such as preserving our older neighborhoods, lowering greenhouse gas emissions and encouraging active transportation — will be excited too. 

Abandoned Butlerville Indiana school - ASF

Abandoned school in Butlerville, Indiana

On the surface, environmental justice and preservation advocates may seem to have an inherent conflict around school siting. Preservationists would like to see more reuse of older buildings which may have contaminants that need remediation.  Before reading EPA’s guidelines, I mistakenly believed that environmental justice advocates would want to only build schools on previously undeveloped land, far from the residents they serve. 

But now I know better.

The first-ever federal guidance on school siting starts off with four key principles that both groups can agree upon:

  1. Safe and healthy school environments are integral components of the education process;
  2. The environmental review process should be rigorous, thorough and well-documented and include substantive and ongoing meaningful public involvement;
  3. Schools should be located in environments that contribute to the livability, sustainability and public health of neighborhoods and communities; and
  4. The school siting process should consider the environmental health and safety of the entire community, including disadvantaged and underserved populations.

EPA’s new tool makes many recommendations that preservationists believe are critical to preserving older and historic schools. Perhaps the most important one is the encouragement of a transparent siting process with input from all stakeholder groups.

With input from the community about its current needs and a fair assessment of current school facilities, a local education authority can make informed decisions about whether or not to renovate an  existing school.  And then. . . if all concerned determine that a new school facility is needed, EPA provides lots of guidance and resources for determining the most environmentally appropriate site.

Little Rock Charter School in Restored Bank
Little Rock charter school in a restored bank

To learn more about the EPA’s voluntary siting guidelines and other new tools, join a Fall Webinar Series called “Expanding the School Siting Conversation:”

October 11 at 1 p.m. eastern/10 a.m. pacific: Location, Location, Location: New Guidance for Locating Schools in a Healthy, Sustainable Way

October 18 at 2 p.m. eastern/11 a.m. pacific: State Strategies for School Siting; Locating Schools for Better Health, Environmental, and Fiscal Outcomes

October 25 at 2 p.m. eastern/11 a.m. pacific: The Environmental Justice and Preservation Concerns of School Siting

November 1 at 2 p.m. eastern/11 a.m. pacific: A Live Chat on School Siting and Community-Centered Schools

EPA was instructed in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) to develop, in consultation with the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, model guidelines for the siting of school facilities. Given that October 5 is Walk to School Day and October is Children’s Health Month, I don’t believe they could have chosen a better time to release their new guidelines. 

I hope you take time to read the guidelines and then take even more time to help representatives from your state, tribe, and/or local education authority figure out how to put this new tool to work for the benefit of your community. 

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