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Basic Information About the School Siting Guidelines

You may need a PDF reader to view some of the files on this page. See EPA’s About PDF page to learn more.EPA's voluntary school siting guidelines can help local school districts, local education agencies (LEAs), and community members evaluate environmental factors to make the best possible school siting decisions. 

The guidelines should be used prior to:

  • Deciding whether to renovate the existing school, or build a new school on the current site or on a new site;
  • Acquiring land for school facilities;
  • Using legacy property already owned by the LEA;
  • Leasing space; and/or
  • Renovating or reusing existing properties and structures already owned by the LEA.

IMPORTANT: The school siting guidelines are NOT designed for retroactive application to previous school siting decisions. They are designed to inform and improve the school siting decision-making process from this point forward. 

On this page:


Why is it important to consider environmental factors in choosing a location for a new school?

Everyone - parents, communities, and education, environment and health agencies - shares the vital responsibility and interest in protecting the health of children in every possible way, including protecting them from environmental risks where they go to school.

Children, particularly younger children, are uniquely at risk from environmental hazards. They eat, drink and breathe more in proportion to their body size than adults.  In addition, environmental contaminants may affect children disproportionately because their immune, respiratory and other systems are not fully developed, and their growing organs are more easily harmed. This means they are more at risk for exposure to harmful chemicals found outside where they play and in the environment where they spend most of their time – school and home.  

A well located school enhances the educational process by providing a safe and healthy environment for children, teachers and other staff. Before siting a school, it is important to determine whether a potential school site is contaminated or could be impacted by contaminants from nearby sources. EPA recommends that all properties or structures proposed for use as a school, as well as surrounding properties, be carefully evaluated for potential environmental hazards before making final decisions to use a site or structure for a school.

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What are the School Siting Guidelines?

The guidelines present recommendations for evaluating the environmental and public health risks and benefits of potential school locations during the school siting process. Examples of environmental risks include onsite contamination like chemicals in soil or offsite risks like industrial facilities. A potential environmental and public health benefit is a location that's close to where students live so they can walk or bike to school.

When selecting a school location, it is important to identify and balance the environmental risks and benefits. EPA recommends that the local education agency (LEA) seek to avoid locations that have onsite contamination or are in very close proximity to pollution sources, especially collections of multiple sources, if acceptable alternatives exist within the neighborhoods being served by the school.

Why did EPA issue the guidelines?

In December 2007, Congress enacted the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA). Subtitle E, Section 502 of EISA required EPA to develop model guidelines for the siting of school facilities that take into account:

  1. The special vulnerabilities of children to hazardous substances or pollution exposures in any case in which the potential for contamination at a potential school site exists;
  2. The modes of transportation available to students and staff;
  3. The efficient use of energy; and
  4. The potential use of a school at the site as an emergency shelter.

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How can the guidelines be used?

The guidelines are intended as a resource for states, tribes, communities, school districts, parents and teachers to consider environmental factors when selecting school locations. By following the recommendations in the guidelines, LEAs, tribes and states can help provide a safe and healthy environment for children, teachers and staff.

The guidelines provide recommendations on steps to evaluate potential environmental challenges and benefits at candidate sites as well as links to numerous resources that can be useful in selection of locations for schools. The guidelines include a Quick Guide to Environmental Issues for readers to learn more about the types of environmental issues that are important to address in school siting decisions.

EPA recommends that LEAs evaluate potential environmental and public health risks and benefits of candidate school locations before a new school is selected. The guidelines provide information to help LEAs navigate the environmental review of candidate sites, including an example of one way that the environmental review process could be organized.

Meaningful public involvement is important throughout the school siting process. The guidelines provide recommendations on public involvement. One recommendation is the formation of a school siting committee that includes representatives from the community to provide input on considering environmental factors at potential school locations.

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How to get involved?

The Meaningful Public Involvement (PDF)(14 pp, 366 K) has information about public involvement and describes the opportunities for meaningful public involvement at different points throughout the school siting process.

States, tribes and municipalities may have school siting regulations or guidance. The government agency that has jurisdiction over school siting varies depending on state, tribal and local authorities. If you have questions about school siting, contact your state, tribal or local education, environment and health agencies. You can also contact the EPA Regional Schools Coordinator near you.

Do these guidelines apply if an existing school in my community is in a location with potential environmental hazards?

While the focus of these guidelines is on the evaluation of environmental factors in the selection of locations for new schools, there are many steps that can be taken at existing schools to help promote healthy school environments. See Resources that Support the School Siting Guidelines for information to help schools and communities take action to protect children's health.

In some cases, environmental improvements at school facilities can reduce potential hazards; in other cases, such as widespread air pollution or water quality issues, a community wide approach may be called for. Community organizations, local businesses and local government can serve as important partners in addressing potential environmental concerns.

While these guidelines discuss many environmental factors of potential concern at school locations, the presence of a potential environmental hazard may not necessarily pose unacceptable risks to students and staff at an individual school.

How can I get a copy of the guidelines?

EPA provides individual sections or the entire guidelines document to view, download, or print; as well as overviews for the main sections of the guidelines, frequent questions and resources that support the guidelines.

Contact us to request a hard copy of the School Siting Guidelines.

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Overview of the Guidelines

The decision about where to locate a school is fundamentally local in nature. These guidelines present recommendations on evaluating the environmental and public health risks and benefits of potential locations as part of the school siting process.

View and print the Overview of the School Siting Guidelines (PDF)(6 pp, 418K) section of the guidelines.

Principles behind the guidelines

In developing the guidelines, EPA focused on four underlying principles for addressing environmental factors in school siting decisions:

  1. Safe and healthy school environments are integral components of the education process;
  2. The environmental review process should be rigorous, thorough, well documented and include substantive and ongoing, meaningful public involvement;
  3. Schools should be located in environments that contribute to the livability, sustainability and public health of neighborhoods and communities; and
  4. The school siting process should consider the environmental health and safety of the entire community, including disadvantaged and underserved populations.

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Involving the public

At the beginning and throughout the process of considering environmental factors in the school siting process it is essential for the LEA to involve the public by reaching out to stakeholders in the community, especially those most impacted by the decision to build a new school or renovate an existing school. Stakeholders can include parents, teachers, school personnel, school health council or team members, community and business leaders, and nearby residents. It is important to develop a communications plan and to identify opportunities for meaningful public involvement to ensure the public is engaged throughout the entire school siting process.

It is also important to enhance the capacity of disadvantaged and other community members to participate in the process through facilitating access to technical information and assistance and providing access to information for individuals with disabilities and limited English proficiency.

To ensure public involvement in consideration of environmental factors in school siting decisions, EPA recommends that the LEA establish a school siting committee (SSC). This committee should generally consist of representatives of the LEA and its governing body, local government or tribal staff, and representatives from stakeholder groups that can help the LEA identify and evaluate potential school locations (both new and existing).

Before the process begins

Before beginning the siting process, an initial decision should be made on whether a new school facility is needed. If the LEA, advised by the SSC, determines that a new facility is needed, the location will play an important role in determining whether the LEA's goals for the facility will be met.

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Questions for identifying desirable environmental attributes

  • What environmental and public health criteria should be used to evaluate each potential location?
  • How can locations be avoided that are either on or in close proximity to land uses that may not be compatible with schools because of onsite and/or offsite pollution and/or safety hazards?
  • How can prospective locations complement and leverage local and regional growth and development plans and strategies?
  • What are the desirable cultural or historic preservation attributes that should be considered?
  • What environmental justice considerations should be included in the desirable location attributes?
  • How will staff, students and community members get to the school?
  • What are the potential impacts that the school might have on the environment?
  • What attributes will allow the school to serve as an emergency shelter for the community?

Questions for evaluating potential locations

  • Which locations present the least risk of exposure to pollutants originating either onsite or offsite?
  • Which locations have opportunities for shared or joint use of school facilities (such as a library, classrooms, physical activity facilities or a health clinic) or community facilities (such as an athletic center or park)?
  • Which locations best fit with local, tribal, regional and state development plans?
  • Which locations would give the most students additional physical activity opportunities by being able to walk or bike to school?
  • Which locations would result in the lowest potential for negative impacts on the environment?

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Preliminary environmental assessment

After deciding which locations best meet the desired positive environmental attributes, LEAs should conduct a preliminary environmental assessment on these locations, which is the first stage in the environmental review process. Examples of topics the LEA, the SSC and the community can consider during the environmental review process include, but are not limited to:

  • The environmental history of each location, which can include soliciting public input about the past use of each location;
  • Assessments of potential onsite environmental hazards from contaminated soil and water at the site;
  • Assessments of potential offsite environmental hazards from nearby sources;
  • The technical feasibility and the costs associated with preventing or reducing environmental exposures, if present, from a short- and long-term perspective;
  • The environmental impact of building or renovating a school on the site (e.g., loss to habitat or green space); and
  • Other physical characteristics such as overall safety and proximity to noise and traffic.

If no environmental concerns are found in the preliminary assessment, the LEA can decide to move forward with the preferred school location. If potential environmental concerns are found in the preliminary assessment, EPA recommends performing a more comprehensive environmental review for the location found to have potential concerns.

Comprehensive environmental review

The comprehensive environmental review should determine if hazardous materials are present or if there is potential for a release of or exposures to a hazardous material or substance that could pose a health threat to children, staff or community members. This review could also assess the need for cleanup based on levels of contamination found and identify the cleanup standards that will be used.

Once the comprehensive environmental review is completed and the public has been given the opportunity to comment, the LEA, the SSC and the community should have the information related to the school environment needed to make a final decision about where to locate the school. If there are onsite and/or offsite environmental hazards, site-specific remediation/mitigation measures and a long-term stewardship plan should be developed, reviewed by the public, and implemented.

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Summary of the Main Sections

Meaningful public involvement

A meaningful public involvement process requires those administering the process to be familiar with and use good public involvement and risk communication practices.

This section of the guidelines discusses:

  • Establishing a meaningful public involvement strategy;
  • School siting committee;
  • Communications plan;
  • Consideration of community information accessibility issues;
  • Technical assistance and training;
  • Designation of opportunities for public input; and
  • Budget for public involvement activities.

View and print the Meaningful Public Involvement (PDF) (14 pp, 358K) section of the guidelines.

Also, this exhibit describes the opportunities for meaningful public involvement at different points throughout the school siting process: Exhibit 2: Meaningful Public Involvement Points and Opportunities (PDF)(7 pp, 161K).

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Environmental siting criteria considerations

School location plays an integral role in creating healthy, safe schools that support high quality education and promote sustainable and healthy communities. In order to reach these goals the LEA should work with the SSC to identify criteria that will be used to evaluate both the present characteristics and possible future characteristics of all locations being considered.

This section includes information on the following general areas of consideration for deciding where to locate a school.

  • Before the process begins:
    • Long-range school facilities plans;
    • Whether a new school is needed; and
    • Whether the new school will be a high performance/green school.
  • Identifying desirable school location attributes:
    • Locations that do not increase environmental health or safety risks;
    • Locations near populations and infrastructure;
    • Implications of the school location for transportation options;
    • Options for developing Safe Routes to School Programs that can support alternative modes of transportation; and
    • The potential use of the school as an emergency shelter.
  • Considering environmental hazards:
    • Potential onsite hazards;
    • Potential nearby hazards; and
    • Screening for potential environmental hazards.

View and print the Environmental Siting Criteria Considerations (PDF)(32 pp, 1.05M) section of the guidelines.

You can also individually view and print the tables from this section that provide information about siting criteria.  See:

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Environmental review process

The example environmental review process presented in this section describes a process of evaluating candidate school sites. The environmental review should be performed by environmental professionals and will benefit from meaningful public involvement throughout the process.

All sites under serious consideration should undergo an initial screen and preliminary environmental assessment. If no environmental concerns are found in the preliminary assessment, no further assessment is needed. If potential environmental concerns are found, LEA should select a different site or perform a comprehensive environmental assessment to ensure that environmental concerns are identified and remediated or mitigated, as appropriate. If remediation or mitigation is necessary to prevent exposures, site-specific remediation/mitigation measures and a long-term stewardship plan should be developed, reviewed by the public and implemented.

A full understanding of the potential risks of candidate sites to ensure that a prospective school site does not pose unacceptable health and safety risks to students and staff is very important but can be costly and time-consuming. For this reason, it may be desirable to try to avoid sites that have onsite contamination or are in very close proximity to pollution generating land uses at the initial stage of identifying candidate sites if other acceptable locations exist in the community that may pose fewer environmental challenges.

The full process for environmental review can be quite lengthy if site remediation and mitigation are necessary. The LEA may want to consider alternate locations early on rather than take a site through the entire environmental review process.

View and print the Environmental Review Process (PDF)(30 pp, 655K) section of the guidelines. 

The section contains flow charts that illustrate the stages in the environmental review process. The stages of the example environmental review process are:

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Evaluating impacts of nearby sources of air pollution

This section provides guidance on assessment of offsite environmental hazards during the environmental review process. It can be complex to measure and understand the potential risks to school occupants that may be associated with air emissions sources situated in the vicinity of the proposed school location. The LEA and the SSC should consider any potential impacts from nearby sources of air pollution early in the selection process.

A trained professional with monitoring, modeling and risk assessment expertise should assess risks from air pollution. The overall process involves the following components:

  • Thorough familiarity with the potential school location's layout, including local meteorology, topography and the land use of the surrounding neighborhood;
  • Initial assessment of existing air quality monitoring and modeling information to gauge air quality in the neighborhood around a potential school location;
  • Development of an inventory of pollution sources and associated emissions that may impact the air quality at a location;
  • Screening evaluation of potential air quality and, if feasible, health impacts potentially associated with a location's air quality based on modeling and/or monitoring assessments; and
  • Development of an environmental assessment report containing descriptions of activities, conclusions and recommendations.

View and print the Evaluating Impacts of Nearby Sources of Air Pollution (PDF)(10 pp, 263K) section of the guidelines.

Recommendations for states and tribes

State and tribal involvement and oversight offers many opportunities to enhance the work of LEAs and the SSC in identifying potential sites or structures for schools. This section of the guidelines identifies important steps states and tribes can take to enhance the capacity of local communities to identify locations for schools that enhance the educational process by providing a safe and healthy environment for children, teachers and staff.

View and print the Recommendations for State and Tribes (PDF)(12 pp, 270K) section of the guidelines.

Quick guide to environmental issues

This section provides general information on some of the common environmental issues that the LEA, the SSC and the community may encounter during an environmental review.

View and print the Quick Guide to Environmental Issues (PDF)(12 pp, 257K) section of the guidelines.

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