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Jim Lively: It is Elementary - Smart Growth Requires Neighborhood SchoolsPrint

Thriving Communities | February 19, 2008 | By Jim Lively

My kids don’t attend Traverse City Area Public Schools, so I have not formed a position about the many proposed changes that have raised such a stir among the TCAPS community. Faced with fiscal challenges, the TCAPS school board last year made some tough decisions that included switching from semesters to trimesters, moving the Montessori school to its own building, shifting sixth graders from elementary to the middle schools and closing three elementary schools.

Last week, the TCAPS board looked at the subject, and their decisions, one more time—and stood behind all of them.

Those are all big changes if they are affecting your child – but the decisions about closing schools have much broader implications for the entire community. You don’t have to be a land use planner to know that proximity to good schools is an important factor in where people choose to buy a home. Because I am a planner who has supported Acme Township’s growth strategy and I am actively involved in the regional Grand Vision planning process, I was asked by a group of citizens from the Acme area to talk to the TCAPS board when they were asked to reconsider the decision to close Acme’s Bertha Vos elementary school.

No community in our region is trying harder than Acme Township to resist the pattern of sprawling development that has already overtaken so many other places. Years ago Acme residents prepared a thoughtful master plan that recognized the significant growth coming their way and proposed a new town center to accommodate the new residents and associated commercial development. Rather than let the growth sprawl along US-31 and M-72 and into the productive orchards, the plan was to concentrate that growth into a walkable village center that would give Acme a Main Street.

Unfortunately, the subsequent zoning ordinance fell short of clearly defining how to construct the new town that the master plan had envisioned, and for the past five years the township has been locked in a battle with developers to try to retain the small-town character they want to create, instead of the mega-mall and big box stores that have been proposed.

Not much growth has happened in Acme while that dispute rages on. But that does not mean that growth will not come to Acme. Preliminary results from the Grand Vision process have identified Acme as a high growth area. And if the township’s master plan ultimately prevails in creating a new walkable village, it will attract plenty of new residents seeking to live in a community with lots of small town character and neighborhood amenities.

Good planning suggests that one of those amenities should be a nearby elementary school.

I was not a part of the TCAPS process that made the decision on which schools to close, and I certainly respect the many factors that they must consider. But the Michigan Land Use Institute promoted keeping Central Grade School open in Traverse City for the very reason that schools should be located in walkable neighborhoods.

Acme Township is trying desperately to create a place that is similar to Traverse City’s central neighborhood, and it is a real setback to those efforts to lose their community elementary school. I want to be on the record in support of Acme Township’s efforts to put a halt to sprawl, and hope that the TCAPS board understands the significance of what removing Acme’s community elementary school means to that effort.