The Kansas cities of Overland Park, Leawood, Olathe and unincorporated Johnson County are lucky to have some clear thinkers and planners on their side. With the school district growing by leaps and bounds, one might expect overcrowded schools and frustrated staff. But what is found are smart planners, a community that stands behind its district, and most of all, innovative facilities.
"We, as educational facility planners, talk about things like discovery and surprise and delight in buildings. We want to get students stimulated and excited in an environment," says Dave Hill, director of facilities and operations for Blue Valley School District No. 229. "You know, after you've been in a building for six months and you notice something new about it-that is a very stimulating thing that adds to the enjoyment and experience of being in a building."
Challenging times With a growth of between 750 to 1,100 students per year, planning becomes essential to providing the best facilities for education in the most efficient way.
"In Blue Valley, our growth is so fast that if we wait to see where we need a school, that is, wait until we see the houses, we're too late," says Hill. " By that time, the land has gone up four times in cost, and we have the undoable situation of overcrowding and an inappropriately designed school campus that doesn't integrate well into the neighborhood."
One of the best examples of the importance of planning is the recently opened Pleasant Ridge Middle School. Built on a 160-acre site that previously was not developed, the area will serve the district as a future K-12 campus.
"If you try to find 160 acres after development has already occurred, forget it. Even if you could find it, you couldn't afford it," says Hill. "And we had a lot of extra costs associated with making this building functional. For instance, this building is not even on a sewer system yet. You have to adapt to those types of situations."
Exploring options For the Blue Valley School District, it is not enough to provide buildings to merely educate students-it is coming up with ideas to create facilities that give students new ways to think and learn.
For instance, the concept of an "exploratory avenue" became front and center to the building design of Pleasant Ridge Middle School. The old idea is that core classes, such as English, math and science, are kept in the front of the building. Other classes like vocational-technical, home economics and music are pushed to the back of facilities. You will not find that at this school.
"The underlying philosophy was to more thoroughly integrate the exploratory concept or component for middle-school education with the rest of the curriculum," says Neal Angrisano, assistant director of design and construction management. "The decision for this building design was to unify all the exploratory components into their own organized or emphasized component. We wanted to elevate its prominence from a physical standpoint in the building, and we came up with one whole middle-school concept built around the exploratory functions, whether it be social, extracurricular or academic. Not to take over the basic curriculum subjects, but to sort of elevate its importance equal to that."
Involving the community Admittedly, the district and its facilities would not be nearly as successful without the cooperation of the community, parents and staff. The planning of each new school involves the blood, sweat and tears that come with countless hours of meetings, planning and construction.
"Our faculty and staff are used to this. We open a school every year on average. We are constantly in the building mode," says David Benson, superintendent.
Although the planning process can produce ideas that are not feasible either financially or building-wise, it is important to the district to get input from everyone.
"We need to have them ask for everything they want. You need to explore the pie-in-the-sky in order to then have the appropriate information to make the decisions and decide what are the most important things we can do spatially and as far as budgets," says Hill. "You have to let them push the envelope. If you start with limitations, you shortchange the process."
Important to the district was the ability to give back to the community through shared-use facilities. Many of the school campuses have areas for community use. From soccer and football clubs to the city's recreation commission to churches, the shared-use areas are in demand.
"Our facilities are constantly in use. We can't build enough buildings," says Benson. "For example, a lot of churches get started by leasing our commons areas for two or three years while they are building up their congregation and get the financial wherewithal to take on a building of their own.
"That's a good community use of buildings. It's a community service."
Getting approval As much as the district would like to plan ahead and have funds available, it does not always work out that way, resulting in the need to propose a bond issue. Most noteworthy, a $166.8 million bond issue was passed by voters earlier this year-and it was done just in time.
"We will be significantly over capacity in the other three high schools before the next one opens, and most of our elementary, middle and high schools go only about two or three years before they hit capacity," says Angrisano. But convincing voters to spend money at a particular time also involves making smart choices so the community can feel assured their investment is being handled properly.
"We do some things that are just more responsible, but that may increase the tax burden a little bit," says Hill. "For instance, on technology, we sell much shorter-duration bonds, which causes a higher spike upfront. But we don't believe it's very fair to our voters to make them pay for computers for 15 years that are obsolete by that time. You'll see us selling bonds with 5- to 7-year notes."
Moving forward Making smart decisions leads to smart facilities. With strong support of the community, the Blue Valley School District seems to have mastered the art of building.
"Yes, you can teach in a plain building with 300-foot-long corridors and 8-foot ceilings; and yes, the most important components are the teacher and the curriculum," says Angrisano. "But we believe the space in which you ask these things to go on also plays a very definite role in the attention and success of the people who do these things."