School administrators in Billings were feeling some pressure to consolidate schools, with budget concerns high and student enrollment flat.
They’d already closed several schools in recent years, a step that meant some students had to travel farther to get to school.
This concerned Kathy Aragon, a local parent and school board member.
“I walked and biked as a child, and I want kids today to enjoy the same freedom,” says Kathy.
It's not just about walkability
Kathy has also worked as a state organizer for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership (SRTSNP), a nationwide network of groups working to make it safer and easier for kids to walk and bicycle to school. She and some fellow parents circulated a survey to local families and confirmed that indeed, growing distances between home and school made walking or biking to campus increasingly unsafe and unappealing.
Kathy knew from her work statewide that school closures were similarly affecting communities across Montana. She also recognized that decisions about where schools are located have impact beyond influencing whether kids walk or bike to school.
“Schools placed on the outskirts of town stimulate growth in those areas,” she says, pointing out that this discourages development in existing but underused urban areas, which is important for creating vibrant central neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, decisions about where to locate schools are intertwined with another complex issue. When it comes to family income or race, few neighborhoods are well integrated – so without careful consideration, advocating for “walkable” schools could end up reproducing neighborhood segregation in the schools.
What Billings and other school districts needed, Kathy realized, was a policy that could help guide decision-makers navigate the complicated process of determining where to locate new schools and when to rehabilitate existing ones.
A "dream come true"
Kathy decided to pursue a model siting policy for Montana schools, and she turned to ChangeLab Solutions for help. She’d heard about the organization through a webinar and emailed staff attorney Sara Zimmerman.
To Kathy’s surprise, not only did Sara call her back right away, but “she said my timing was perfect” – it turned out that Sara had just begun drafting a school siting policy, and she was glad to tailor it for Montana with feedback and input from local stakeholders.
Kathy was thrilled. “I’m not a policy writer, so when she said she’d do it, it was like a dream come true.”
Sara and Kathy joined forces with the Montana School Boards Association, which provides districts throughout the state with policy development support and other services, to put together a school siting policy addressing a range of goals while taking local realities into account.
Meanwhile, Kathy made use of her abundant connections to assemble a group of more than 20 representatives from transportation, engineering, education, smart growth, and urban planning agencies in Montana to provide their perspectives and feedback.
The policy that emerged provided a strong framework for making school siting decisions based on several “priority” factors, including walkability, safe routes, community resources, environmental quality, and racial and income diversity. Designed to help decision-makers balance all of these factors, the model aims to maximize the benefit for students’ health, educational success, and overall well-being.
Soon after the policy was drafted, the Montana School Boards Association adopted it as an official model.
Kathy says she’s optimistic that the model will help schools and cities make more sustainable decisions for the future.
“With tools like this,” she says, “we can bring all of the information to the table and make more educated, less costly decisions.”
(Photo: Austin Brown / pedbikeimages.org)