The Influence of Grassroots Organizing on Public School Facility Siting Decisions

Growth across the region has created a public school facilities crisis throughout Southern California’s cities. School districts struggle to house a rapidly growing school population in areas with little vacant land. However, developing new schools, especially in central cities, often disrupts neighborhoods and displaces residents. School districts often fast-track siting approval and bidding processes for new schools and do not meaningfully engage communities in decision-making, causing community distrust of the districts.

Within this dynamic political context, grassroots neighborhood organizations are beginning to influence and even impede new school development. Through community organizing and political relationships, these organizations are learning the complicated public school development process and becoming empowered to influence it. The thesis examines the factors that affect a grassroots neighborhood group’s influence on school siting decisions. It explores this issue through two case studies in which a group of residents from a low-income, marginalized neighborhood organized to successfully oppose one school site and advocate for another. This research finds that mobilization is not always the most important factor in site selections. Political opportunities, such as unstable relationships and relationships among elites, and site viability, determined by a lack of community opposition influenced site selection more. Mobilization, however, can increase social capital and credibility for a neighborhood group, thus increasing power. From this, community organizers can learn to use these opportunities to access power and school facility staff can learn that participatory planning requires an established process and dedicated personnel.

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