Local use of school facilities is as old as the one-room schoolhouse, but it is getting renewed attention as schools find ways to use their property to make new connections with their communities, improve residents’ health, get new services for their students, and—in some cases—find new sources of revenue.

A few weeks before the first day of classes at Veazie Community School in Maine, Principal Matthew Cyr was ticking off the programs that the school would be hosting for people in the surrounding town of about 2,000 during the year. The substantial list included activities involving the Mary Drew School of Dance, Veazie Garden Club, a Lego robotics group, and the Seacoast United Maine North Soccer Club.

“We have a strong and collaborative relationship with municipal officials, and we all operate with the mindset that our school is the heart of the community,” says Cyr, who is both principal and superintendent for VCS.

About that same time in Minnesota, Stillwater Area High School Principal Robert Bach was preparing for a groundbreaking at a new school-sponsored fitness center for use by students and the community. For about $20 a month, local residents this winter will be able to use its indoor walking track, weight room, and cardio facilities.

Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Houston, TX, at the huge, $80-million Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District’s Berry Center, organizers were checking the schedules for school activities against the multiple requests from the public for use of its arena, stadium, theater, conference center, and food production center.

And, in Chicago, older students from a private school are starting a book club for public school elementary students in their media center. Near Washington, D.C., students in a high-poverty middle school are beginning after-school chess and yoga classes sponsored by local organizations and cooking healthy meals in the school kitchen.

“We recognize that our community members are the people who made these facilities possible through their support of our bond referendum,” Bach says. “It is reasonable and healthy that we should look for ways to allow our community to directly benefit from their investment in us and demonstrate our gratitude.”

The Logistics of Making Partnerships Work

Marty Blank, senior fellow of the national Coalition for Community Schools, notes that the federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires schools to involve the community in its activities—plus, he says, it should simply be a school’s goal to educate not just its students, but others of all ages in the community.

He and others recommend that the process start with schools forming an “action group” with parents and other community leaders to consider needs and explore options.

It is important for a wide variety of stakeholders to be involved, says Sarah Downer, a professor at the Harvard Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, who advocates for community use of schools and is the author of a key Massachusetts toolkit to guide schools through the process.

The process should be transparent and the public should be involved so that new relationships can develop, she notes.

Downer says schools generally have very clear policies about use by other organizations, and while it is good to have some control at the school level where the needs are best known, principals should get district input (see sideba below) and make sure they follow the proper procedures.

Staffing is often a big issue, Downer notes. Some schools insist on having a school employee attend public events; other schools are satisfied just to have a member of the facilities staff available in the building. Principals should also be sure to take into account that the scheduling for the use of school facilities and processing of paperwork take time, either at the district or school level; principals should adjust staff duties accordingly.

At Howard County Public Schools in Maryland, one assistant principal is responsible for the school’s extensive offerings to the community (ranging from rental of the entire school for an evening at $880 to room rental at $35 an hour), but in other areas, staff in various departments split the responsibility. For example, an athletic director handles the fields and gym, while a media specialist schedules use of the media center.

Experts say districts should have firm policies that spell out details about outside interests using schools. The Public Health Law Center in St. Paul, MN, has a detailed review of policies related to community use, but it also says schools should not restrict themselves too much. The center recommends that schools be creative: “Be open to the many different ways to get students and the community involved.”

The Bottom Line?

Tom Barentson, director of business services for the Galt Joint Elementary School District in California, is a strong advocate for opening school facilities to the community, even finding ways to lease extra school office space to the local recreation department when he was an assistant superintendent for the Sacramento City Unified School District.

“We entered into a leasing agreement that gave the city a fair market rate for rent and a resulting revenue stream for our district, and that bottom line helped fund programs for our students,” he says. “However, the purposes of the arrangement should never lose focus on what the outcomes mean to our students, families, and community.”

He and other facility managers note that school districts can sometimes gain revenue leasing their facilities (he raised about $450,000 with the office leasing), but often they simply want to break even, since the arrangements pay off in other ways.

The Huron Valley School District in Highland, MI, for instance, brings in nearly $81,000 a year by charging families about $600 annually to use its often dormant pools, gyms, track, and workout rooms when they aren’t being used by school classes or teams, an effort lauded in a local editorial. But officials also make building space available for use in a variety of ways for no profit.

Downer says that beyond the good relations, a willingness for schools to open their doors can help when districts are trying to get support. “It is a way for school leaders to persuade the community to invest in education,” she says, noting that it can also mean schools make valuable connections to political and other leaders in the community and can tap into resources those groups have available.

Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) has one of the most extensive programs for making its facilities available to the public, which began in the early 2000s when its schools were ranked among the worst in the nation. It was born thanks to a partnership with the city and various other groups that refurbished the schools and focused on school-based health, mental health, and dental clinics, along with an array of extended-​day programming created with various local nonprofit organizations.

The effort has resulted in improved student performance and health and “hundreds of community partnerships which brought millions of dollars in additional resources to the students and their families,” says Darlene Kamine, executive director of the Community Learning Center Institute, the organization that facilitates the program.

Other schools nationwide are experimenting with offering space for health and mental health professionals to provide services to their students and families.
When the expansive Cincinnati Public Schools effort to develop community schools was being considered, then-Gov. Jack Gilligan (who served on the CPS school board) put it this way:

“The park board, the recreation commission, the board of health, the library board-all of them are doing things in the neighborhood, but not always in a coordinated fashion. To get them thinking in terms of not just doing their own thing their own way but coming into a community effort and joining a community effort—that will make the total impact greater than the sum of the parts.”

Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.

Legal Issues

Experts say principals should take two steps as they work with community members in use of school facilities:

  • Check with the school district. Generally, they have a policy and forms for use in these circumstances.
  • Regardless of what process or organization is involved, get something in writing and make sure you are covered for any liability.

“Know what you are doing and the implications of sharing space-and limit your exposure,” says Sarah Downer, a Harvard professor who has worked on the issue and developed a guide for schools and community members to enter into such arrangements in Massachusetts.

She notes that it also is important to become familiar with your state’s regulations. In Massachusetts, for instance, state law says that all liability is waived for the school if it charges no fees for use by the public.

In its guide “Finding Space to Play: Legal and Policy Issues Impacting Community Recreational Use of School Property,” the Public Health Law Center says that states have laws limiting liability for use of facilities by schools, but they may be very different or very specific, and they may provide only some protections for certain activities.

For example, Florida has a statute that provides immunity protection for skateboarding or skating, and Nevada provides protections if schools allow snow sports on their property, the center notes.

The Public Health Law Center also reports that liability concerns are “a key barrier to community use of school property” and lists options available, including caps on the damages that can be assigned to a school district, indemnity clauses, waivers, and releases. However, the center warns about the limits of each. The National School Boards Association has guidelines for community use also.

Cooperative Use of School Buildings

There are a variety of arrangements that allow for the cooperative use of school buildings beyond the common practice of letting local sports teams practice in the gym or local government use the cafeteria. Explore these illustrative examples:

  • At Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring, MD, as many as 25 after-school programs are available to local students thanks to a collaborative effort with a variety of local organizations. Offerings include fitness programs, a chess club, a remote-control car club, cooking, yoga, and poetry—all free for students.
  • Students from the Latin School of Chicago have worked with three public schools to offer book discussions and dance instruction. The Francis W. Parker School in Chicago hosts a regional poetry slam for more than 600 students.
  • Several schools like Stillwater Area High School in Minnesota make fitness facilities available. At Mayfield High School in suburban Cleveland, the school’s fitness center, gyms, and pools were renovated four years ago, and local residents can use the track, workout rooms, and pools for a membership fee of $32 a year. “This great facility was so underutilized for 20 years,” says Sean Ward, director of recreation for Mayfield, who notes that use of the center has steadily grown by 20 percent each year. (Recent interest has stirred up a fast-growing senior pickleball group.) The hours of usage have tripled to 90 per week. “The whole project was like unearthing a rare jewel,” he says.
  • Mount Abraham Union Middle and High School in Bristol, VT, opened its media center and computer labs to the town, and found that it could grow interest by offering programs on travel, college exploration, finance, and other topics. Some programs used remote speakers through Skype. Other programs provided tutors for students or gave seniors tips on use of the technology. The schools advertised the available space broadly throughout the community to improve turnout.
  • The Racine, WI, area Community School Alliance has brought in experts on issues related to student health and learning to schools in the evening.
  • When Paint Branch High School and other schools in its suburban Washington, D.C., district put in artificial turf on their fields, it allowed a variety of community sports teams to use the stadiums when the high school teams weren’t using them. This was done with little cost to the school system. Paint Branch charges up to $235 per hour for use of the fields.
  • Besides its Berry Center, which attracts public use, Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District outside Houston, TX, also offers a ropes adventure course at three middle schools that students can use, along with youth organizations and civic and corporate groups. Individual parties can also reserve the space.
  • Council Bluffs Community School District in Iowa has a carefully conceived policy about community use, according to Facilities Director Staci Pettit, because family engagement is a key part of the district’s strategic plan. It ranges from allowing use of its fieldhouse for $250 to free use of community garden space at various locations. “We wanted to increase area connections and awareness of district strengths and make a positive impact on the greater community beyond just with our students,” Pettit says.
  • When the mayor of Everett, MA, learned that his town’s population had one of the highest obesity rates in the nation, he worked with the schools to provide Family Fitness Nights at no cost to parents, thanks to a grant from a nonprofit concerned about student health.