August 20, 2002

More public schools seek private funds

  • But public-private partnerships will fizzle if schools don’t do their homework
    Northwest Architectural Co.

    Renton Ikea Performing Arts Center
    Courtesy of Northwest Architectural Co.
    The Renton Ikea Performing Arts Center, now under construction, is one of many successful public-private education partnerships. The local Ikea store contributed $500,000 to the $5.82 million project, enabling the Renton School District to upgrade its design for Renton High School’s new auditorium. Levernier Construction of Spokane, the general contractor, expects to complete the arts center in December.

    Public-private partnerships are a growing trend in public-schools planning these days.

    These partnerships occur to some degree at all grade levels, such as with boys and girls clubs at the elementary level, and with YMCAs and YWCAs at the junior-high level. But the greatest opportunity for partnerships is at the high-school level, where facilities that serve students can also serve adults.

    Partnerships can take two basic forms: curriculum partnerships, where a private entity takes on an educational function; and facility partnerships, where a private entity contributes to the development of a school with its own money.

    These two forms are also combined where the private entity uses the facilities it helped pay for to teach public-school students. In curriculum partnerships, students often leave their campus to take classes on the premises of the curriculum partner, such as when students learn auto mechanics at a dealer’s service department. It is the other type of partnership that is the focus of this article.

    Early in the planning process, it is typical for school districts to anticipate the participation of private entities in school construction. The usual participants envisioned for these partnerships include banks, credit unions, police precinct stations, clinics, food services, copy centers, libraries and performing arts centers.

    These plans typically go forward through the programming, conceptual and schematic design phases until someone says, “show me the money.” Many good ideas die at this stage because no ground has been prepared to sow their seeds.

    Everyone agrees that these kinds of partnerships make for efficient use of public resources and enrich the educational experience, but the public will falls short of funding these sorts of initiatives.

    Bond measures are framed for maximum efficiency, so as not to be seen providing “frills,” and private entities or public partners often have no way to raise funds unless they have a great deal of time to generate interest — and hence, funding — through their organizations.

    But there are partnership success stories out there.

    In Portland, Parkrose Community School includes a public library and a public health clinic at the school. In Vancouver, Skyview High School was designed to allow students to participate in the planning, marketing and service of food. Skyview also has an in-school credit union.

    "Public-private partnership plans typically move forward until someone says, ‘show me the money.’ Many good ideas die at this stage."

    Locally, a great example of a partnership is the Renton Ikea Performing Arts Center. Now under construction, the center is a cooperative development of Renton School District, the city of Renton and the Renton Community Foundation.

    When initially planning the school, the school district allocated funds only for a simple auditorium. The city and several community leaders approached the district about expanding the scope of the project to a performing arts center as part of an effort to enliven downtown Renton.

    After a series of meetings, it was determined that the concept could work, but would require more funds than were available from the school bond measure. After additional meetings, which worked out operational cost responsibilities, the parties went forward with their plan.

    To make their vision come together, citizens formed the nonprofit Renton Community Foundation to raise $1.1 million for the project, boosting the project budget to $5.82 million. The budget also included $4.27 million from the school district and a $450,000 matching grant from the city. The bigger budget would allow the school district to construct the performing arts center with an expanded lobby, a theater manager’s office, and extra dressing rooms and makeup rooms.

    Since it was not clear if the Renton Community Foundation would be able to reach its fundraising goal, Northwest Architectural Co. was asked to design the center on a schedule that would allow its conversion back to an auditorium if funding could not be achieved by the deadline.

    The foundation worked hard to raise the funds, using a star motif in the building’s lobby to recognize donors. Thanks to a $500,000 donation from the Ikea home-furnishings store, the foundation reached its goal and the project went forward.

    In this public-private partnership, the money was raised because people had a clear vision and were willing to back up their vision with hard work and hard dollars. It took a lot of volunteer work and a lot of public relations, but this will always be required of successful public-private partnerships.

    The enhanced project will allow students to have a more comprehensive education in theater. A set shop and enhanced lighting and control systems will allow for significant instruction in technical theater.

    The intimate 550-seat house will be well suited for theater, but will also allow musical performances. Professional groups will be able to store costumes, props and scenery at the center, allowing them to stage long-running productions.

    But the most significant benefit of this partnership will be the interaction made possible between students and professional actors, directors and musicians. This kind of authentic experience is the whole reason why we pursue public-private partnerships.

    Greg Stack, AIA, is the managing principal and principal in charge of design for Northwest Architectural Co.’s Seattle office. With offices in Seattle, Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, Northwest Architectural Co. serves educational and other public clients throughout the region.

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