Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Get off the bus, Gus

Anti-sprawl activist Thomas Hylton makes an argument that he's made before: Pennsylvania needs to stop subsidizing bus transportation for local school districts, a switch that he believes would encourages school districts to renovate, rather than replace, outdated school buildings:

Pennsylvania school buses travel more than 381 million miles annually at a cost of more than $1 billion. That's nearly 75 percent of the cost of the state's urban and rural transit authorities. Although the state provides about half the funding for both systems, school districts are automatically guaranteed a subsidy based on their aid ratio and miles traveled, no further questions asked.

For example, the Blairsville-Saltsburg School District in Indiana County recently announced plans to close its high school in Saltsburg Borough and bus those students an hour away to an enlarged Blairsville High School at an additional cost of $200,000 annually. Thanks to the state subsidy formula, district taxpayers will only pay $62,000 more. The commonwealth will make up the rest.

Generous subsidies for school busing are just one reason the number of students walking to school has plunged from 50 percent in 1970 to less than 15 percent today. In recent decades, hundreds of walkable neighborhood schools have been closed all across Pennsylvania, often to be replaced by sprawling mega-schools on the urban fringe.

These new schools spawn car-dependent development and drain the life from older communities. Statewide, the loss of neighborhood schools has been a major factor in what the Brookings Institution calls the "hollowing out" of Pennsylvania -- disinvestment in older urban areas in favor of developing suburbs. ...

The Mt. Lebanon School District is held up as a model. The district has not built a new school since 1963. Instead, it has renovated its two middle schools and seven elementary schools, most dating to the 1920s and 1930s, and will soon renovate its 1928 high school. The district's architect estimates the renovated schools cost about 70 percent of the price of new construction, not including land acquisition. (link)

On the whole, I agree with Hylton. By subsidizing school bus transit, without any conditions, the state is, in effect, subsidizing sprawl. Undoubtedly some districts would find it more affordable to rehab smaller neighborhood schools rather than build large new ones if they had to bear the entire cost of transportation.

But I think in some cases Hylton may be confusing cause and effect. Some school districts build large, consolidated schools because a decline in the school-age population makes the cost of maintaining several buildings prohibitive. It's not merely a question of whether renovation is cheaper than new construction, but whether the costs of renovation and ongoing maintenance of multiple buildings is offset by savings in transportation.

Mt. Lebanon can maintain its neighborhood schools because it has a relatively stable, dense population -- not to mention a healthy tax base. Those are luxuries that not every community enjoys.

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