Facilities in the Independence (Ohio) district were outdated and inadequate, but officials could not persuade voters to foot the bill for new construction. The community rejected a bond issue to build a new middle school and subsequently turned aside a proposal for a new high school, superintendent David Laurenzi recalls. With the traditional avenues for building new schools blocked, district officials sought a different approach.

“We began working with the city on the concept of a joint facility,” says Laurenzi.

That did the trick. With the city's participation, the price attached to the school district's bond request became more palatable to taxpayers, who approved the proposal in 2002. The school district's side of the partnership began paying dividends last month, when students moved into a new 118,000-square-foot high school. In a few months, another 80,000 square feet of common space will become available for community programs.

“It's a concept that makes sense,” says Laurenzi.

And not just in Independence. Throughout the nation, school districts and universities that urgently need new space are confronted with familiar obstacles — lack of funds, a public reluctance to burden themselves with higher taxes, and the difficulty of finding appropriate sites large enough to accommodate the community's educational needs.

But when schools can find the right partner to share the costs of building and maintaining space, the payoff comes in many ways. Besides gaining access to new, modern facilities, schools can show through their partnerships that they are an active and integral part of the community, and that they are committed to using taxpayer funds and community resources efficiently.

“You get to a point where both [the city and school district] see they have needs to be addressed and are working for the same population,” says Laurenzi.

Community centers

Many schools routinely make their facilities available after hours to outside groups through rental arrangements. Forming partnerships with other governmental entities, social-service agencies or not-for-profit groups takes that community outreach a step further and reinforces a school's traditional role as a neighborhood center.

To those who embrace the ideal of a school serving as the heart of a neighborhood, sharing a facility is more than just a financial arrangement to save tax dollars — it's a philosophical statement about a school's vital role in a community.

“When the community is engaged with the school, resources and benefits flow both ways,” says the Coalition for Community Schools. “Community partners provide on-site supports and opportunities for students, their families and their neighbors. In turn, the school maintains an active presence as a community hub, providing opportunities for family involvement, tapping into the community as a resource for learning and serving as a center for community problem-solving.”

Partnerships can take many forms. Community members often desire greater access to gyms, swimming pools, playgrounds and other recreational facilities, libraries, computer labs, auditoriums, performing-arts spaces and meeting rooms — all of which can be found unused after hours at many schools. In some cases, a school site may house a health clinic or other social-service agencies.

In Glendale, Calif., the school district formed a partnership with the city to build a new elementary school, community center, library and park expansion. After school and on weekends, the community has access to the school gymnasium, art, science and computer classrooms, and parking. The school library also serves as a branch of the city library system.

Officials estimate that if the city and school district had to build separate facilities, it would have cost the community an additional $5 million.

“Instead of allowing the inertia of ingrained habits and the risks of shared use to become the deciding factor, [the city and school district] focused on the value to the community and worked together in partnership to create … a true multi-functional, multi-generational center for the city,” says Vincent Hanna Petito, project director for Leidenfrost/Horowitz & Associates, executive architect for the project.

Sharing the burden

In Independence, Ohio, the existing high school was built in 1961 and was unable to meet curricular needs in many areas: technology, special education, laboratory facilities, performing arts and physical education. The middle school was built in 1923 and, according to the state of Ohio's standards, was beyond renovation.

“The city had needs, too,” says Laurenzi. “It needed more gymnasium space. It had outgrown its civic center.”

The two entities saw that they could accomplish together what they couldn't by themselves. Forming a partnership, they developed a construction plan that called for a new high school with a fieldhouse and community rooms included for shared educational and community use. The existing high school will be converted to a middle school.

By building a shared facility, the district was able to pursue a $33 million project using only $18 million in school-district funds. The city contributed $13 million toward construction of the facility and paid an additional $2 million to purchase the existing middle-school site from the district.

City and school officials were able to convince voters that the project was a good deal for taxpayers.

Staying safe

One potential pitfall for schools and universities that decide to share facilities with other agencies is the threat to security. In recent years, schools have had to become more vigilant about visitors with malevolent intentions, so when a school opens one of its facilities to outsiders, it must take steps to ensure it is done in a way that doesn't jeopardize the safety of students and staff.

“You have to make sure it's designed with security in mind,” says Laurenzi.

Typically, joint-use facilities have separate entrances to keep the student population separate from the general public. They also are designed so that the areas dedicated solely to school use can be locked down once the school day is over to prevent unwanted intruders from entering.

A shared facility might require other security measures, such as camera surveillance or access-control systems.

Ongoing relationship

When a school forms a partnership with another entity, officials should keep in mind that in most cases the relationship will continue once the construction is completed. States such as California provide financial incentives for constructing joint-use projects, but school officials should make sure that they are prepared to operate the facility with a partner.

That means the parties involved have to establish clear guidelines over who has control over which parts of the facility during which hours, and who is responsible for ongoing maintenance, repairs and landscaping.

“Any time you have two political entities involved, there are bound to be issues that surface,” says Laurenzi.

Creating a strong partnership and clearly defining roles will help defuse potential disputes.

And not all partnerships are created equal. The San Dieguito (Calif.) High School District formed a partnership with the city of Solana Beach and San Diego County to build a joint-use library at Earl Warren Middle School.

“The district owns and maintains the building,” says Russell Thornton, the district's facilities director. “A library is very easy to maintain.”

But at another San Dieguito school, the district has a joint-use agreement with the Boys and Girls Club for a gymnasium.

“With another governmental entity, they tend to look at things the same way we do,” says Thornton. “The partnership with the Boys and Girls Club is more problematic. They tend to look at us more as a landlord. A gymnasium has a lot more high-intensity use, and they can be very demanding.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at mkennedy@primediabusiness.com.

Anchoring neighborhoods

A successful joint-use project can result in more than just more efficient use of a community's resources. These facilities can become the anchors for a neighborhood, especially economically lagging urban areas. That's the belief of New Schools Better Neighborhoods (NSBN), a California organization with a goal of creating more neighborhood-centered schools.

The organization makes its case for more collaborative projects in California in a 2002 report, “A New Strategy for Building Better Neighborhoods.”

“The simple fact is that urban areas no longer have available land with which to build single-purpose facilities,” the report says. “Therefore, to accommodate future growth, cities must plan to develop mixed-use projects in much more creative ways than before.”

NSBN identified several characteristics of a community that would make it a good candidate for joint-use school developments:

  • Civic leadership committed to collaborative land-use planning and development.

  • Underlying land-use policies that allow for and support mixed-use development.

  • An area experiencing physical and economic blight.

  • A densely populated area with a limited availability of land and financial resources.

  • Community infrastructure projects planned for the area.

College town

The Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University sits next to an urban neighborhood of Baltimore, and university officials have worked for several years with community leaders to improve the area and create a “college-town” atmosphere — lively street-level retail shops and restaurants, and plenty of pedestrian traffic — that forges a stronger bond between the school and its neighbors.

To that end, the university has partnered with private developers — Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, and Capstone Development — to form the Collegetown Development Alliance. It is building a complex adjacent to the Homewood campus that will include student housing, dining facilities, parking and retail shops, including a bookstore that will serve both students and community members.

A 618-bed residence hall is under construction and is scheduled for completion in 2006. A highly visible Barnes & Noble bookstore will replace and triple the size of the current campus bookstore, which is tucked away in the basement of a campus building.

In conjunction with the university project, the developer, Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, is building two compatible projects nearby that will include residential units aimed at young professionals, retail and office space, and parking. Together, the so-called Charles Village Projects will provide needed housing space for Johns Hopkins students, and will help the university and the surrounding community realize their goal of creating a more vibrant cityscape for students and residents.

“This is a culmination of John Hopkins' efforts to improve the neighborhood and revitalize the area,” says David McDonough, senior director of development oversight for Johns Hopkins Real Estate.