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Growing from Within

With the community behind them, administrators at Mid-Del School District, Okla., are tackling challenges one school at a time.

If you were to visit the Mid-Del School District, encompassing Midwest City, Del City and a portion of Oklahoma City, Okla., you would not see new schools popping up on every corner. To see movement, growth and action at this district, you would have to go in and see for yourself.

In only five minutes of looking, you would see Mid-Del School District for what it is: A community of hard-working, dedicated staff backed by a supportive and strong community.

Different challenges "One thing that I think is really important, we're in a position right now and have been for several years where we're not building new schools-enrollment is pretty stable," says Cheryl Steele, superintendent. "But we take very seriously renovation and the things that keep the buildings up-to-date and functional. It's a different kind of challenge than building a new school every year."

With schools that range from almost-urban to extremely rural, and scatter 96 miles across the district, maintaining renovation projects on all schools can create its own set of problems.

"The thing that I think makes us really in the mainstream is we're not in the growth pattern, but we are running bond issues every year, and our issue is leaping into the 21st century with technology, science labs and fine-arts facilities," says Steele. "At the same time, we have constant renovation of buildings that range from 10 to 35 years old, so that they look state-of-the-art and function as state-of-the-art.

"That's where the job is enormous because you don't know what you're going to find. Are you going to find asbestos? Are you going to find ghosts from the past where the standards and regulations were different? Then, of course, you have to bring everything up to code."

The lock of the land While some districts are able to grow with the community as it stretches for miles of unclaimed territory, Mid-Del Schools does not have room to grow on at least three sides of district boundaries.

"We're just not able to expand our buildings. We're locked within the confines of the surrounding districts and the community itself," says Larry Springfield, assistant superintendent. "This would be a dwindling community if not for this attitude of staying put."

This is where the new set of challenges comes in. For example, schools in the district have long been air conditioned. However, one of the recent issues at the elementary-school level was cafeteria air conditioning. For one or two schools, it would not have been a long process; but for 17 elementary schools, it took two or three years to get the job done.

"We have a lot of experience on the remodel and redesign of schools, as opposed to building new," says Springfield. "Sometimes I think it would be easier to build a new technology-friendly school instead of trying to take a 30-year-old building and make it technology-friendly. It involves lots and lots of retrofit."

However, the district is committed to spending the money it takes for quality education and facilities.

"We try to maintain and spend the maximum amount of dollars to put technology in schools. We have to spend a little bit more money on the retrofit of the facility as opposed to the technology equipment, but we get it done, and we get it done right," says Springfield. "It might be a little slower, but instead of just stringing wire down a hallway, we go in and do the proper connectivity for the next generation so someone doesn't have to do this again."

Filling in the gaps An example of the challenges faced by this type of district is Barnes Elementary School, which was built with army barracks, brick facade and new wings constructed on either side of it. What the current facility team inherited was a school where the middle literally fell in.

"We kept looking for a window to have the dollars to be able to renovate that facility without a tax increase," says Steele. "For a long time, it seemed, there were two independent buildings with a hole in the middle, and a gymnasium sitting in the back, and a host of temporary buildings."

Accommodating students throughout the entire construction process did not go without its problems and headaches. But to the credit of staff, not one instructional day was missed. This was very important to staff, students and parents.

"Everything's a field trip," says Steele. "The cafeteria's on one side, then there's an empty spot where we're rebuilding, and then a lot of the classrooms are on the other side, so they have to go outside two or three times a day."

But this is where the community has been integral to keeping education the main priority. The team has made a conscious effort to keep the community included with such things as signs throughout the district detailing construction progress, "Thank you, voters" signs after passing a successful bond issue, and computer classes for senior citizens in school buildings have kept the focus on communicating progress.

"We have a somewhat aging community with people who don't have kids in school. Because that's the case and because we're not out building brand-new buildings, it's not always visible from the street when we're doing something," says Steele. "The credibility and support next time around to come out and vote on a bond issue becomes very important, so we're doing the things that are trying to get people in our schools."

Giving back Being available is especially important when it comes time for bond issues and trying to get funding for the district.

"It's important to keep people invested, and when you're doing renovations it's a little bit bigger challenge," says Pam Deering, assistant superintendent for fiscal services. "Trying to help them understand why we need that-is it luxury or is it need? We think it's need, but sometimes it's a challenge to get people to understand that."

Another challenge is that they have to get 60 percent approval on bond issues, which is not a small task.

"It's a constant issue, and the balancing act is not wanting the perception that you're always out there asking, so we try really hard to take real specific steps and we always talk about giving back," says Steele, who makes 85 to 100 site visits for each bond issue. "It's really important that they see us as school people and not asking all the time. It takes everybody's commitment."

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