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HometownSource.com: Shared school/community facilities are a winning combination

HOMETOWNSOURCE.COM 

As education and civic leaders struggle with challenging budgets, the Minnesota communities of Perham and Northfield leaders may have valuable lessons to share. In these communities, education, city, community and corporate leaders create a cooperative facility. In both communities, and dozens of other places around the country, something has been built via collaboration, that no one group could have done by itself. Their efforts are relevant for every type of community: suburban, rural or urban.

In Perham, a northwestern Minnesota town, the school district had a big problem. Their gym had deteriorated badly after 45 years of use. Townspeople were not at all certain they wanted to give the school district money to create a new one.

Fortunately, visionary educators reached out to the city and several small businesspeople. Both city and business leaders were trying to find a way to improve peoples’ health and fitness, and do something that would make Perham a more attractive place to live and work.

The result is the Perham Area Community Center (PACC). Built right next to (and connected with) Perham’s secondary school, PACC features a swimming pool, roller-skating rink, state of the art physical fitness facilities and equipment, dancing studio, walking/running track, whirlpool, wading pool, racquet ball courts and several large gyms. It’s open seven days a week, early in the morning to late at night. Various health programs give discounts to their members who use PACC regularly. You can learn more at www.346pacc.com.

A few hundred miles south, in Northfield, community groups, including senior citizens, early childhood advocates and the school system, had been eager to construct new facilities. But none of them were able to put together enough money to do it by themselves.

Dr. Charlie Kyte, Northfield Public Schools superintendent at the time and other leaders spent more than a year planning, seeking various local allies, including a local developer. Not everyone who was contacted agreed to participate (this is the real world, after all).

But five major groups, including the city and school district, DID agree to cooperate. The result is what the Northfield Senior Citizens Center director has called “a dream come true.” It’s a beautiful $5.5 million dollar, “state of the art” facility housing programs for all ages of Northfield residents.

The Northfield and Perham facilities are featured in a new report, “Smaller, Safer, Saner Successful Schools,” that Sheena Thao and I wrote. It’s at www.centerforschoolchange.org. We’ve also sent a copy to every Minnesota public library. A federal grant and Minnesota Department of Education contract helped us.

We cite a Coalition for Community Schools report, that found shared school/community facilities produce many benefits for students, families and other residents: “increased access to physical and mental health services, positive academic developments, and improvements in personal/family situations.”

Shared facilities also make much better use of tax dollars. Bringing together a community partner, whether a nursery school, Head Start Center or other service agency inside a school, can be an alternative to higher taxes, closing schools, or cutting services.

Joe Nathan, a former public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change, Humphrey Institute, University of Minnesota

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Daniel Munson on 02/06/2008 - 02:42 pm.

    I understand what Mr. Nathan is getting at, and it seems difficult to argue against sharing the valuable tax dollars. However, there are some serious problems with trying to combine school and city properties. As a board member for BOTH a local school and a local, public library, I have investigated this with the hope of turning it into the favor of my community. However, the bottom line is NOT dollars, and it DOESN’T make sense.

    In the combination of a school and public library, there are only two examples in Minnesota, and both will tell you that it doesn’t work well. One example is Northfield, which Mr. Nathan refers to. In their case, after the town was destroyed by tornado, it made sense to rebuild quickly and efficiently.

    When combining schools and public property my first question is: What about security? More and more schools are tightening their security and locking their doors. It’s a different world out there than it was 20, 30 years ago. Lockdownd practices are now as common as fire drills. Yet a public facility, such as a library or pool or gym, must be open to the public. You can not discriminate. I’m not sure I want my children sharing a library with a stranger off the street. Certainly I don’t want them in the same locker room near the pool or gym.

    Who operates the facility? Who is responsible for maintaining the facility? Certainly these seem like small items and would be worked out early, but by most accounts that I’m familiar with, after a couple of years, there is dissention among the parties.

    The purpose of a school building is generally quite different than those for a public entity. A school library has a different function and need than does a public library.

    The IDEA makes sense. The reality isn’t quite as cut-and-dry as Mr. Nathan makes it out to be. We went in hoping to combine forces. Every bit of information that we studied showed us that this was NOT a worthwhile option. Fortunately the entities in my city work well together. Use of nearly any space in the school building is available to the public before and after school hours. The libraries work well together, offering different services. The community centers, including the pool, work hand-in-hand to provide necessary services for the school.

    THAT, I believe, is how it REALLY should be.

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