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Creating Successful Joint-Use Collaborations

school collaboration 

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Collaboration is the art and science of combining people’s talents, skills, and knowledge to achieve a common goal.
– Leigh Thompson, Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration

In the middle of planning a major capital project you suddenly realize that another agency could combine their needs and resources with yours to plan and build this project. Either through self-censorship or lack of interest from the other agency, your idea is dead on arrival. If a potential project is identified in your community, what are the ingredients of a successful collaboration? What is necessary to facilitate a solid joint use opportunity?

Although capital project collaborations are not usually in anybody’s job description, when joint use projects are successful they tend to become the highlights of a facility planner’s resume. It is a win/win proposition to use talent across multiple public sector silos and optimize community benefit while minimizing costs. Realizing the tremendous advantages, the capital planners of Los Angeles Unified School District and New Haven Public Schools have each included efforts to incorporate successful joint use elements into their projects.

Jeffrey Vincent, Ph.D., is an expert in these collaborations. He is the Deputy Director of the Center for Cities + Schools at UC Berkeley (CC+S). Founded in 2004, CC+S works to advance policies and practices that create opportunity-rich places where young people can be successful in and out of school by cultivating collaboration between city and school leaders.

Their strategy uses the following targeted initiatives:

  • The PLUS program provides coaching, technical assistance, and bridge-building opportunities like forums to facilitate cityschool collaborations.
  • The Y-PLAN program seeks to engage youth in urban planning and empower them to create change in their community.
  • The Policy Research initiative investigates and documents state and local policies and practices that leverage efforts across housing, land use, transportation, education, school facilities, and regional planning to thoughtfully expand opportunities for all young people and their families.

According to Dr. Vincent, two critical ingredients of a successful collaboration are a shared vision and mutual accountability. Both should be agreed upon in advance, and not just at the staff level but also by organization leadership. He says the Joint Use Task Force (JUTF) of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina is a good example of this. It was important to decision-makers for their agencies to work together to identify joint use projects for the sake of developing a deliberate balance between optimizing community benefit and minimizing public cost. The Board of Education, along with city, county and municipal leadership, concurrently adopted resolutions supporting opportunities for joint use and occupancy of facilities. Meetings are held monthly and all agencies charged with development, funding, occupancy, or management of public facilities are encouraged to attend.

Jonathan Wells is planning manager for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department and has served as convener of the JUTF for a number of years. He states, “The task force, in addition to serving as a catalyst for numerous collaborative capital projects over the years, has also managed to cement a culture of collaboration and cooperation between, and among local agencies on a broader set of community growth and development policy issues which likely would not otherwise exist.”

Because capital projects take years to fund, plan, and construct; a third necessary ingredient of a successful collaborative effort is continuity/longevity. For instance, the research for the Emeryville Center of Community Life (ECCL) was part of Dr. Vincent’s doctoral thesis many years ago and yet, it just opened for business last year! City and school district officials worked together for more than a decade to make this bold vision a reality. The ECCL project is a community center that includes elementary, intermediate, and high school facilities with a library, health clinic and public meeting areas. It is designed to be the heart of the community functioning as a meeting place and hub of civic and educational activity. The final design and scope of the ECCL was achieved by collecting feedback from more than 20 community design workshops resulting in nearly 50 hours of opinions and comment.

The concept of joint use was not foreign to the City of Emeryville and Emery Unified School District (EUSD). They had used it in the past for school sports fields, gyms, pools, classrooms, and other facilities for city recreation programming. But in 2001, the bankruptcy and state takeover of EUSD prompted city and school board leaders to identify ways to operate more efficiently and effectively. The city actually loaned the district money as it worked with the state to overcome its financial and regulatory difficulties. Although California state law provided very little guidance regarding shared occupancy on such a broad scale, community residents and leaders joined together to develop a more coordinated and cost-effective approach for serving children, youth and families. Elementary and secondary school facilities were combined on one campus, thereby reducing overhead costs associated with operating the existing set of buildings for the city’s small student population. Co-locating additional community resources provided wrap around services that meet the needs of families at every stage of life and create new opportunities for adults to mentor youth and for older students to mentor younger students. The completed center has already become a vibrant hub of community life with courtyards, plazas, playgrounds, and multi-use sports fields.

Another example of an effective city/school working relationship is the Community Learning Centers developed by the City of Lincoln, Nebraska and the Lincoln Public Schools. This longstanding and very successful collaboration includes ten diverse community agencies and has created 25 centers throughout the city. These centers are located in one high school, six middle schools, and 18 elementary schools and offer programs that enrich student learning, support families and strengthen neighborhoods. The community center includes after school, weekend and summer programming.

While anecdotal evidence is plentiful and common sense would seem to favor joint use, Dr. Vincent is concerned that the longitudinal data demonstrating the long-term benefits is almost non-existent. It is difficult to build a case for a project without hard data, which likely results in unconvinced decision makers. He says that by and large most public sector agencies tend to be risk-averse. So when a new approach to a potential project that involves joint use opportunities is discussed, the risk manager’s response is often negative. Dr. Vincent believes public sector risk managers may benefit from training in transactional methodology and he hopes that this would eventually create an openness to working through the issues of a proposal rather than the traditional negative response.

Looking into the future, Dr. Vincent is extremely optimistic about public sector agencies working together for the common good. His organization believes that urban planning is an underutilized resource that helps schools accomplish many of today’s education goals by providing opportunities for rigorous, project-based civic learning experiences. He has found that the participation of young people is often an untapped resource. Younger participants not only contribute enthusiasm to the project, but an authenticity that is refreshing. As students identify problems where they live and engage with civic leaders to fix these problems, they become not only more prepared for careers and college, but also agents for positive social change in their communities.

This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of School Planning & Management.

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