School & District Management

New Breed of Community Partnerships Aiding Schools

By Nora Fleming — September 07, 2012 8 min read
Students run laps during recess on their playground built atop the local light-rail system's garage in Charlotte, N.C. Sterling Elementary School and the Charlotte Area Transit System share the land as a result of a partnership between the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district and Mecklenburg County.

New kinds of agreements between school districts and their neighboring communities to share space and assets are on the rise.

These symbiotic “joint use” partnerships enable districts and entities such as cities, nonprofit organizations, and businesses to maximize the use of facilities and money, while meeting the needs of children and others in the community.

But from joint land-development initiatives to the shared use of building space and playfields, those involved in these relationships are finding their navigation can be tricky. Without the money-saving measures, though, many districts and communities are struggling financially to stay afloat.

“Joint use or shared use as a strategy is taking off across the country because it’s an approach that embodies common sense and good governance,” said Manel Kappagoda, the vice president of ChangeLab Solutions, a public-health-focused nonprofit based in Oakland, Calif., that has helped districts devise and sustain joint-use agreements. “The promise [in joint use] is rooted in the realization that even the most poorly designed and underserved neighborhoods include schools. In an era of budget shortfalls, maximizing access to existing facilities—rather than trying to construct new ones—is the most efficient and economical use of public resources.”

Sharing a Vision

School districts have long entered into joint-use agreements. Traditionally, they consisted of a formal or informal relationship between a district and a municipal agency, such as a parks department, that enables the community to use school facilities when classes aren’t in session or the school to use the community’s. Use and maintenance costs are typically shared.

These days, though, the portfolio of joint-use partnerships, and the reasons districts pursue them, are evolving. In the past, they were often driven by limited finances, lack of recreational space, and social-service needs. While those needs remain, many newer partnerships are focused on both parties sharing a vision for community improvement with the local schools as a focal point.

No one has put estimates on the number of such arrangements nationwide. At the local level, however, in 2011, the school board for the 640,000-student Los Angeles district approved joint-use projects amounting to $120 million of school bond funding, as part of the district’s large joint-use program.

States have also fostered joint-use arrangements.

Students take part in structured activities during recess on their playground atop a three-story parking garage in Charlotte, N.C.

Since 2009, for example, Arkansas’s excise tax on tobacco has provided funding for a $500,000 annual, competitive-grant program that gives money to districts for new or existing joint-use agreements that promote physical activity by improving the quality of and access to shared recreational space.

Districts or communities in areas with high child-obesity rates and high percentages of students from low-income families receive extra points in the application process, said Jerri Clark, the school health-grant manager at the Arkansas education department.

Recipients can get up to $10,000 per project to jump-start their efforts, and some 75 grants to 25 to 30 districts have been awarded each year since the program began. One recipient, the Cabot district, about 30 miles northeast of Little Rock, is considered a 100 percent joint-use district. All facilities and spaces are shared between the district and the municipality.

Currently, the Arkansas education department is drafting guidelines to help districts write and adopt official contracts to move them to more sustainable formal relationships, Ms. Clark added.

“There’s been a change of mind-set in the way we think about healthy kids, with a focus now on the ‘whole child,’ which isn’t directly related to education, but still impacts education,” she said. “We’ve learned that schools can’t do it alone and communities can’t do it alone. The emphasis is now on partnerships and how important they are.”

Successes and Failures

While such agreements are increasing, so are the challenges associated with them.

In Colorado Springs, Colo., the 28,600-student district has found both success and failure implementing joint-use agreements.

On the positive side, a national nonprofit group, the Space Foundation, uses office space inside a middle school in exchange for providing math- and science-curriculum support to teachers and students. The district has also sold and converted vacant schools into municipal resources, such as a community center now under construction in a former elementary school. It will house a community garden, coffee shop, and bakery, and host community classes, all developed by a local brewery that will also use part of the space for brewery expansion.

But other relationships haven’t been as successful, said Kristine Odom, the district’s executive director for procurement and contracting. In one, because of limited finances, the partnering organization was not able to provide services to district students and still cover its share of costs after the recession hit, she said. Disagreements also emerged with the organization over what space was to be used for, in this case, inviting outside partners to host evening activities on contraception and other topics the district did not feel comfortable having take place on school premises.

Districts and communities are often hesitant to enter into joint-use agreements, according to Jeff Vincent, the deputy director of the Center for Cities & Schools at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I’ve talked with a lot of principals who believe schools are community assets that should be welcoming to community leaders, but sharing and coordinating the use of space comes with a lot of challenges,” said Mr. Vincent, who has studied joint-use arrangements. “Determining who gets priority of use, how you pay for wear and tear, how you clean up after uses, and guard yourself against liability—those are big challenges, but they can certainly be overcome.”

For smaller districts with limited central-office personnel, navigating differing governing rules between public entities is even more difficult. School administrators have also complained that they lack the incentive and vision from their school boards to move forward with these agreements, he said.

Planning Together

Most states have legislation that supports community use of school facilities, and many municipalities address those ventures in official land-use or community plans, but successful implementation of sustainable agreements hinges on local leadership, according to ChangeLab’s Ms. Kappagoda.

“Champions of the concept” at the school or community level, regular communication between parties, and well-developed, formalized agreements that spell out the logistics tied to maintenance, funding, and scheduling are essential, she said.

“Joint-use agreements hinge on relationships,” said Cliff Johnson, the executive director of the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families at the National League of Cities in Washington. “When there’s a solid relationship between city and school leaders, they often can get past the knee-jerk reaction that joint-use agreements can’t or won’t work, identifying new and creative ways of collaborating so that everyone comes out ahead.”

Tempering the challenges associated with joint use has taken a variety of forms.

In Portland, Ore., and surrounding Multnomah County, for example, six districts have separate agreements with their respective municipalities as part of an initiative, managed by the county, that involves 67 schools.

Students and their families receive wraparound health, academic, social services, and enrichment provided by local organizations and businesses. Most of those groups use space inside the building during school and nonschool hours. Coordination of the providers, from the nonprofits that operate food pantries for families to the local Boys & Girls Clubs that run after-school programs, is overseen by a full-time, on-site manager.

San Diego’s 132,000-student district uses a boilerplate document for all agreements that spells out obligations between the school system and the city. Seventy-six 76 arrangements are currently in place. Staff members from the district and city meet monthly to go over agreements and renewals. They also discuss future endeavors, such as a recently proposed bond measure that would install turf fields at all elementary and middle schools and secondary fields at the high schools for joint use.

And in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district in North Carolina, an area that covers seven municipalities, representatives from the school system, city and county governments, parks and recreation and police departments, and other public agencies sit on a joint-use task force that meets monthly. They discuss upcoming capital-planning projects and where they might be able to partner on new or existing projects to “get the best value for our taxpayers,” said Mike Raible, the head of planning and project management for the 140,000-student district.

While challenges still arise, such as dealing with differing district and city bond referenda schedules that provide project funding, the task force has made joint-use agreements much easier for the district to craft, he said. To date, it has 69 active agreements, including one with the county’s light-rail line. In that case, an elementary school playground sits atop a rail station’s parking garage.

Building Relationships

Advocates of joint-use agreements hope the arrangements are also fostering relationships between schools and their neighbors, promoting a notion that schools are an essential part of the community, even for residents who don’t have children in them.

By providing broader access to schools, a district makes it more likely that the community will be motivated to pass local bond measures and tax increases for school needs, many say, given that their tax dollars are paying for resources they can also use.

Others, however, also point to the cost effectiveness of building relationships between schools and communities.

Marty Blank, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership and the director of the Coalition for Community Schools, says joint-use partnerships have become part of a growing movement to improve the connections between schools and their communities, leveraging assets that can improve both.

“In a world where everyone wants results,” Mr. Blank said, “joint use about efficiency is important, but not enough. It has to also be about joint purpose.”

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Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2012 edition of Education Week as Joint Use of Campuses Grows in Popularity for Communities


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