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By Neal R. Peirce

America’s maladies of giantism and mindless standardization aren’t just matters of the craze for bigger highways that paved the way for Wal-Mart and McDonalds and their imitators, erasing the distinctiveness of our communities.

Our public schools are being impacted just as gravely. Grand old structures continue to be mindlessly demolished, replaced by nondescript, low-slung buildings in seas of parking lots on the outskirts of towns.

And not always by accident. Just as there’s a highway lobby — the asphalt and concrete gang, engineers and state highway departments — there’s a powerful lobby for tearing down old schools and building anew. It includes school construction consultants, architects, builders, and their rule-writing allies in state departments of education.

Take the school construction saga of Brentwood, a working class old trolley suburb about 5 miles south of Pittsburgh. In 1995, the local school board was talking of closing the two elementary schools and attaching them to the existing middle- and senior high school in a single giant K-12 education complex.

Ronald Yochum, a professional working with the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, thought that was a terrible idea. So did several others who ran with him for the school board, promising to save Brentwood’s neighborhood schools. They unseated the incumbents with a 70 percent vote.

Once elected, they faced a mountain of Pennsylvania Department of Education space minimums and code requirements. A school building consultant was hired, who reported the two old schools were substandard, that they should be demolished and replaced with new structures costing $11.2 million.

The consultant was asked– What about comprehensive renovations instead of demolition? His reluctant answer: Maybe you could do it. But you’d have to put a stucco shell on that old building to get satisfactory energy efficiency. The job would cost, he estimated, $8.6 million.

Yochum and his board allies wanted nothing of a plan that would destroy the building’s historic aesthetics. So they located a local architect who wasn’t wired into the Pennsylvania school-building game. With him, they devised a plan to renovate the two old schools in a way that preserved the aesthetics of the facade and interior, insulated the walls and roofs, rewired the rooms for Internet technology, and met every state building requirement. The final cost: $5.9 million, just over half the consultant’s first figure.

Even then, the price was $850,000 more than it had to be to satisfy a state regulation mandating steel and concrete wherever the old structures had wood load-bearing walls and wood floors. The state regulators wouldn’t budge on their rule, even though the revamped buildings would have full fire sprinkling. The rule, says Yochum, makes it difficult to rehabilitate any school building more than 30 or 40 years old.

Similar stories, says Constance Beaumont of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, are being echoed across America, in one state after another. In her book, “Smart States, Better Communities,” she identifies typical “guidelines” — from the Council of Educational Facility Planning, for example — which escalate from at least 10 acres of land for every elementary school to 50 acres for community colleges, plus extra acres (based on total enrollment) for playing fields and lots of parking spaces.

Another guideline recommends against renovating any school if the cost is more than 50 percent of total replacement. States don’t need to adopt these guidelines — but they frequently do. Communities that want state school aid are forced to abandon still-serviceable historic buildings.

The result: “school sprawl” that makes towns less attractive and marketable, feeds exurban growth, forces many students from their bikes onto buses, removes students from the lively daily flow of town life, and indeed simply feeds the isolation many of today’s teenagers feel.

J. Myrick Howard of Preservation North Carolina charges that his state’s Department of Public Instruction not only promulgates “ridiculous” acreage and size standards for new schools but has adopted regulations which actually limit preventive maintenance of fine old school buildings. It’s “poor stewardship of public resources,” says Howard.

Maryland appears to be the grand exception. Recently backed up by Gov. Parris Glendening’s campaign to restrain sprawl, a set of counter-guidelines — for preservation — are being enforced by Yale Stenzler, director of the state’s public school construction program.

And with clear results: From 1991 to 1997, the percentage of Maryland’s school construction funds supporting renovations and additions to existing schools — rather than new structures — soared from 34 percent to 82 percent.

“Older school buildings can be renovated and revitalized to provide for the most up-to-date educational programs and services.” says Stenzler. Remade schools in existing neighborhoods “will encourage families to stay, … to use the existing roads, parks, libraries, public facilities.”

Will other states start shifting course? Maybe, with progressive (and smarter) governors. But more guerilla action at the school district level, like Brentwood’s, may be vital to convince the public of how much is really at stake.

©1997, Washington Post Writers Group.

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