UNC and UF Researchers Develop Educational Module and Decision Support Tool for School Location Decisions  

School location is important. The distance between home and school is one of the reasons children may choose to walk, bike, take the bus or be driven to school. Yet school location may also impact another important factor, school transportation costs, which could have a big impact on how funds are spent for educational activities.

Dr. Noreen McDonald of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her doctoral student, Mathew Palmer, including co-PI Dr. Ruth Steiner of the University of Florida, have developed an educational module that integrates a comparative School Transportation Cost Calculator to assist transportation professionals, land-use and school policy makers and graduate students in making decisions as to where to build (or close) a school. Doing so may help enhance cost-efficient public spending in transporting children to school.

“This project has direct practical implications for planners, decision makers, and the general public,” McDonald said. “We introduce a complex policy issue and break it down into components that are approachable and tied to illustrated examples from real schools.”

Data from the U.S. Department of Education indicates that annually, $20 billion is spent in the U.S. to bus 25 million K-12 children to school and the costs seem to be increasing.  As strains on state and local government funding become more and more prevalent, it is important to manage the financial aspect of transporting students to school so that funds can be used to enrich the classroom experience.

The team’s project, “School Transportation: Development of and Educational Module” (STRIDE 2013-032S), builds on the results of their 2012 STRIDE project titled “Quantifying the Costs of School Transportation,” which yielded the framework for the creation of a decision support tool – the School Transportation Cost Calculator – based on data from 20 schools in North Carolina and Florida. The schools were selected to document the variation in costs by location type, including density and population. The tool estimates the transportation costs of prospective school sites.

“Through this project, we have brought together the background information and resources into one place, and in so doing offered the education module as a hub for students and practitioners to understand and evaluate school siting decisions,” Palmer said.

The 2013 project finds that while city planners and policy makers are somewhat familiar with the issue of where to build a school, otherwise known as school siting, there has been a lack of resources and general awareness dedicated to the costs associated with the development and operation of a school transportation system.

“In discussions with stakeholders, we have found that many districts and planners have attempted on their own to perform some costing analysis for different school siting scenarios,” McDonald said. “This project is about the development of an education module designed to include in city planning, educational leadership and public policy graduate courses. The education module may also be used for practitioner workshops in transportation, land use and educational facility planning.”

The School Transportation Cost Calculator was developed in beta form as a component of the initial STRIDE project. Drawing on cost data from the initial research project, the School Transportation Cost Calculator has been updated in the 2013 project and is now designed to streamline the public and private comparison of different potential school sites.

For example, a school planner may be asked to evaluate several school sites in order to provide estimates on the costs and logistical considerations that each site may potentially present. Using the Cost Calculator, planners can actually estimate the public capital and operational cost differentials from one site to another, as well as the private costs associated with parents who may drive their children to school. In addition to costs, and drawing from 2012 National Household Travel Survey data, planners can also estimate the percentage of students that may walk or bicycle, drive, or take the bus to school depending on the inputs they use for population and distribution.

 “The topic of school siting and the impacts of school location on transportation costs is not only relevant to school transportation practitioners,” Palmer said. “It is an approachable example of transportation and land use dynamics and the interdependency of these two planning domains. A key to this project is communication and outreach to industry partners and stakeholders across planning, education and public policy.”

The cost calculator and the educational modules will soon be available on the STRIDE website at /course-materials-developed-by-stride, and the results of this research will be presented at the American Planning Association’s North Carolina Chapter conference in October 2015.  An online webinar will be hosted by the STRIDE center this fall.