Joining Forces

April 1, 2006
Joint-use agreements help schools and universities spend funds more efficiently and provide better services to their communities.

“If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

Some education administrators may embrace that sentiment, but in an era of shrinking budgets and finite resources, schools and universities have a better chance of doing something right when they aren't going it alone.

Through joint-use agreements, education institutions forsake some of their independence for the benefits of collaboration. By partnering with municipalities, private groups or other education institutions, schools can build better facilities and offer more services to their communities.

“We're very open to it,” says Jim McConnell, chief facilities executive with the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has numerous joint-use projects in the works as part of its massive construction program. “Our toughest challenge is finding partners.”

But to be successful, schools and their partners must clearly establish the boundaries of the joint-use agreement — who will have control of the facilities and when, who will maintain the facilities, and who will be responsible when something goes wrong.

Mutual benefits

The ideal scenario for a joint-use partnership is one in which each side has something to gain. Schools and universities, always trying to squeeze more out of their budgets, can save money when they find a partner that will foot some of the bill for a new facility. Other governmental entities — cities, counties and other education institutions — have the same financial concerns and the same motivations for seeking joint-use arrangements.

As education institutions more readily pursue stronger connections with the entire community, joint-use programs allow them to forge those bonds more effectively — providing entire communities with more access to facilities and services, often critically needed in some areas, and more efficient use of tax funds.

“We try to satisfy the social needs of the community as well as the school facility needs,” says McConnell.

Schools and universities also can team up with non-profit groups or private companies who want their own goals met, but in a way that will enable schools to offer facilities or services they couldn't on their own.

In the Rio School District in Oxnard, Calif., officials have entered into agreements with private developers of what will be known as the RiverPark community. About 2,800 new homes are planned for the development, and the district has neither the space for the anticipated spike in student enrollment nor the money to build new facilities. So the developers will build a middle and two elementary schools in RiverPark and turn them over to the school district. The first one, named Rio Del Mar Elementary, is scheduled to open later this year.

“There is certainly not enough money coming from the state to build a school of this kind,” says Hugh Pickrel, interim Rio superintendent.

Also part of the RiverPark development will be recreational space — three softball and four baseball fields. Oxnard and the Rio district have a joint-use agreement to share those fields, as well as a gymnasium planned for the middle school.

The district will have use of the facilities during the school day, and the city will use them in the evenings and on weekends. Pickrell says the city will be responsible for ongoing upkeep of the fields.

“The city will do the mowing and pay the water bills,” says Pickrell. “It allows us to take a step back from playground management. Maintaining fields can have a major impact on the budget.”

For Oxnard, providing additional recreation opportunities for its 187,000 residents makes the joint-use plan desirable.

“Anytime you can add 350 acres of park, that's a good thing,” says Dean Yamamoto, park maintenance supervisor for the city of Oxnard. “From our standpoint, it's a win-win situation.”

Elsewhere, Coastal Georgia Community College took advantage of donated land to build a satellite facility in Kingsland, 35 miles south of its Brunswick campus.

The Camden Center jointly houses community college courses under the auspices of the University System of Georgia, and technical courses under the auspices of the state's Department of Technical and Adult Education. Tom Saunders, the school's vice president of business affairs, said it was complicated working out agreements to satisfy both state agencies.

“That was a little challenging,” says Saunders. “We had to balance having general-purpose classrooms, such as biology or chemistry, in the same building as a culinary program or a computer-aided drafting classroom. It's an odd mix.”

Navigating the bureaucracies of the two state agencies also was a challenge.

“You've got to be willing to put up with a lot of paperwork,” says Saunders.

The city of Kingsland, eager to accommodate a post-secondary presence, helped provide the infrastructure to the new campus.

“The city was pretty willing to work with us,” says Saunders. “They helped build the roads and the parking lots.”

Saunders says that although there is not a formal joint-use arrangement with the city, the college expects that the Kingsland community will be using the Camden Center's auditorium frequently.

Seeking partners

The Los Angeles district has some $19 billion at its disposal for new and upgraded facilities, so potential candidates for joint-use arrangements might think the district doesn't have financial incentive for such partnerships.

The facts say otherwise. According to the district, it has 40 long-term joint-use agreements with municipalities for use of school facilities; and 26 ongoing joint-planning projects, as well as 366 short-term and 225 long-term leases with community groups for use of district facilities.

“We have a strong commitment to joint use,” says McConnell. “We are seeking to create partnerships.”

Joint-use projects in the Los Angeles district have led to an additional 244 acres of green space, 207 acres of hard-surface play areas, 570,000 square feet of gymnasium space (equivalent to 135 basketball courts), and 10 competition-size swimming pools.

Some examples of joint-use projects:

  • New Academy Canoga Park Elementary School

    The campus was built as part of a joint-use project with a private developer. In addition to a new school, the project led to construction of 119 housing units adjacent to the school.

  • Theodore T. Alexander Science Center School

    The district teamed with the California Science Center, a museum near the University of Southern California campus, to renovate an armory and create an elementary school. The school and museum share space and resources.

  • Northridge Academy High School

    The district and the California State University at Northridge agreed to a land swap that led to construction of a 1,000-student high school on a five-acre site adjacent to the university campus. The district was able to accommodate the school on a small site, McConnell says, because its agreement with the university allows students to use many of Cal State's facilities.

  • Vista Hermosa High School

    The district is building a high school campus on the trouble-plagued site once known as Belmont, where they had to halt construction several years ago because of environmental concerns. The school will be smaller than the original Belmont plan, and the district is partnering with a state agency, the Mountain Recreation & Conservation Authority, to develop the freed-up space into badly needed park space.

McConnell says the Los Angeles district won't cut a deal with anyone looking merely to take advantage of school facilities and resources.

“The word ‘partner’ is the key to the whole process,” says McConnell. “The toughest challenge is finding suitable partners. We steer away from entities that want to get involved under the auspices of joint use, but who don't bring sufficient resources to the table. They need to bring value to the enterprise.”

In some cases, the partner is unable to live up to their side of the agreement. At the Los Angeles Center for Enrichment Studies, the district teamed up with the city of Los Angeles to build a swimming pool. But after the pool was built, the city did not have funds to pay for lifeguards, so the pool is not available for community use.

“There are hits and misses,” says McConnell. “It tempers our enthusiasm.”

Another missed opportunity in Los Angeles is partnering on libraries. Libraries shared by schools and municipalities are one of the more common types of joint-use arrangements (see sidebar, p. 20), but McConnell says the city upgraded its library facilities in the 1990s without the involvement of the school district. Consequently, there is little need for new joint-use libraries.

McConnell cautions that potential partners must realize that signing a joint-use deal with the Los Angeles district is like hopping on a non-stop train — the district is striving to complete what has been called the largest school construction project ever in the United States: 150 new schools built between 2001 and 2012, as well as repairs and upgrades to 800 existing campuses (70 million square feet).

“We're driven by a very aggressive construction schedule,” says McConnell. “Many private groups have the same sense of urgency that we have. You have to meet our timing imperative.”

What seems like a fast pace to school officials might move slower for other groups not accustomed to the long and complicated process of getting school construction approved in California.

In other cases, groups don't have the money to form an equal partnership. Besides Los Angeles, 26 municipalities are within the borders of the Los Angeles district, but they have not shown as much interest in partnering as the district had expected.

“There just isn't that much money out there,” he says. “We have more joint-use opportunities than the city and county are able to take advantage of.”

Making it work

The key to making a joint-use agreement successful is clarifying the details early in the process.

“You have to make it perfectly clear from the get-go who has control,” says Andrea Cohen Gehring, an architect with WWCOT, who is working on both the Vista Hermosa project in Los Angeles and the RiverPark project in Oxnard. “You have to get people involved early and respect each other's role so that there isn't any turf war.”

McConnell adds that the most troublesome areas to work out are financial.

“The two most important issues to resolve in a joint-use agreement are who's liable, and who's going to pay for maintenance,” says McConnell.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

Sharing libraries

Libraries are obvious candidates for joint-use agreements. Most every school has one, and nearly every community also has a public library. Providing a facility that can serve both constituencies can save taxpayers money by avoiding the duplication of facilities and materials, but the partners in such a project have to address many issues if they want a combined facility to be successful.

In “Combined School and Public Libraries: Guidelines for Decision Making,” the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction raises several questions that schools and municipalities should deal with before entering into a joint-use library agreement:

  • User eligibility

    Boundaries for school districts and municipalities often are not the same; the agreement should address who can use the library.

  • Employee qualifications

    Certification requirements may differ for school librarians and public librarians.

  • Differing missions

    School libraries need to focus narrowly on the needs of students; public libraries must provide materials and services for the entire community.

  • Different users

    “Some adults may not be comfortable in the presence of teenagers … students may not be eager to return to school after hours, and students from another school might be uncomfortable,” the guidelines state.

  • Geographical placement

    The best location for a public library may conflict with the best site for a school library.

  • Security concerns

    Providing access to adults may cause a security problem for schools.

  • Service conflicts

    Disagreements may arise over issues such as the content of the collection, hours of operation, programming and space.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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