Slaying School Sprawl

(Appeared in Blue Ridge Press Syndicate, 5/20/2002)

As elsewhere in the South, the growth beast recently has pointed its flinty claw at Spartanburg County, S.C. A year from now, on the city’s west side, a new Super Wal-Mart will splay its massive parking-lot feet over ground occupied for 30 years by Dorman High School.

Does it matter that a normal-sized Wal-Mart now stands less than a quarter-mile away? No, not in the tiny reptilian brain of the beast.

It must make good business sense. A big-box developer spent a cool $15.5 million for the school grounds, and the school board took part of the money and bought well over 200 acres of woodland and field deeper in the county. Soon the growth beast will waddle out to this new site, an interchange of rural highway and interstate along the flood plain of the Tyger River, one of the area’s cleanest streams.

The new Dorman complex is an educational brontosaurus itself, an out-of-step-with-the-times “mega-school,” where the grounds are bounded on two sides by four-lane highways and the only approach is by car and bus. The once-forested site, scheduled for completion next fall, will include a new high school, middle school, district office and athletic facilities. It’s big – so big that school officials are calling their $70 million complex a campus.

The absurdity of the new school’s day-to-day logistics is the point of much talk around town: Art teachers will travel by auto between classes at the high school and middle school, and students will shuttle in buses like airport commuters between the middle school and the distant athletic fields for physical education.

Those of us who opposed the high school’s sellout and resettlement think the move seeds yet another piece of Spartanburg County for sprawl. The infrastructure costs – much of which will be paid over years in state and county taxes – are massive. Added to the cost of the new school and its grounds, the roads, interchanges, water and sewer will total a staggering $127 million. And the school will draw much more traffic down Highway 221. When it opens, there will be 6,000 trips per day associated with the school, creating a traffic nightmare usually reserved for a Wal-Mart parking lot.

The Dorman loyalists in favor of the district’s relocation see the project as an opportunity to create a “super-school” for 2,600 students (grades 9-12) closer to the center of their rural school district. A shiny, new school will build pride, and increasing size – to many this is no minor issue – will make Dorman more competitive in sports. What district, they argue, would pass on the chance to build an educational empire from scratch?

Overlooked, it seems, are the true costs of growth, which outweigh many of the perceived educational gains. These costs have caused “school sprawl” to become a hot topic in the countrywide public debate. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has published a report called “Historic Neighborhood Schools in the Age of Sprawl: Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School.” It confirms that, “The small school you could walk to is being replaced by mega-schools in remote locations,” but notes that “across the country, parents are clamoring for smaller, community-centered schools on the basis that they are better for the kids and better for learning.”

The National Trust’s report speaks of many factors for moving schools to town outskirts, most of them with no relation to quality of education. Contributing factors can be state funding biases, inflation of school renovation cost estimates, building code inflexibility, deferred maintenance of existing buildings, acceptance of donated sites and biased planning committees often “dominated by corporations, developers, and construction company owners.”

Out on the west side of Spartanburg, some apparently recognize sprawl’s harms. Real estate signs already have begun to pepper the highways into the area. These folks must know what is on the horizon, development kudzu the likes of which many locals have never seen: new subdivisions, strip malls, lube shops and fast food restaurants filling up fields, pine plantations and hardwood groves as they inch in on the flood plain of the Tyger.

I wonder if the Dorman school board considered before making its decision that South Carolina is losing 107,000 acres of open space each year to new development, the ninth highest rate in the nation? I wonder if it bothered them that they disregarded the county’s non-binding comprehensive plan to help control growth? And I wonder if they realized that a mega-school might inherently teach students the negative values of over-consumption and bigger-is-always-better?

“Rain follows the plow,” speculators told gullible pioneers headed west in the 19th century. “Prosperity follows asphalt,” say the 21st- century breeders of the growth beast. “If the lad or lass is among us who knows where the secret heart of this growth monster is hidden,” Gary Snyder writes in The Practice of the Wild, “let them please tell us where to shoot the arrow to slow it down.”

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