A challenging economy combined with growing enrollment has caused Northland school districts to think out of the box — or in some cases out of the school building — to find ways to serve students.
Faced with a struggling economy, rising state standards and a growing number of students to serve each year, area school districts are shying away from putting up new buildings and are instead looking toward creative — and less costly — ways to provide for their students. The results are community partnerships, renovating existing space and reconfiguring technology use.
Just last week the North Kansas City School District announced that it would partner with the City of Gladstone to create a Northland Innovation Campus in Gladstone’s downtown. The campus will serve as a non-traditional educational environment for students in the district’s gifted and talented program as well as provide classroom space for the Northland Center for Advanced Professional Studies program, a collaboration of six Northland school districts to give high school students real world opportunities with local businesses.
The first phase of the Northland Innovation Campus, which is also expected to attract private businesses to Gladstone’s downtown, will consist of an approximately 80,000-square-foot building. The school district plans to lease out about 60,000 square feet of that space to split between the CAPS program and the new gifted and talented center.
According to White, the gifted and talented center will primarily serve elementary students and will free up 14 classrooms in district elementary schools to serve the district’s growing student population.
The school district joined the partnership not only to provide greater educational opportunities for students, but also because it made financial sense.
White said building a classroom would cost the district more than $200 per square foot and would require the district to assume the debt. Leasing the space from the city will drop that cost down to $16 to $18 per square foot and won’t require the district to assume any more debt.
“We can’t continue to build classroom space that’s going to cost our taxpayers $200 a square foot,” White said. “It’s unsustainable so we’re going to have to create additional partnerships where you can pool community resources and tax dollars so you can make the biggest bang for that buck.”
This philosophy is also evident in how the district structured its latest bond issue and levy, which will go before voters this April. The North Kansas City School District will place a $20 million bond issue and 26 cent tax levy before voters this spring that would not only allow the district to lease the new space from Gladstone but would also let the district convert computer labs into 14 classrooms.
The bond package does not include any money for new construction or additions to existing buildings.
“We’re trying to think differently about how we accomplish a lot of the things that we are trying to do and that sort of necessity of the economy and the increase in state standards and those sorts of things can either overwhelm you or you can take a look at it as an opportunity to be more innovative,” White said.
The North Kansas City School District isn’t the only district that’s looking at creative solutions.
Late this summer, the Liberty Public Schools completed a facilities master plan process that took a close look at the district’s current facilities, growth projections and ideas for creating the space needed in the most financially sustainable way.
Liberty superintendent John Jungmann said some of the outcomes of that process were to set a target of reducing the square footage per student 10 percent by 2020 and also to rethink how the existing space is being used.
Just this month the district moved its district administrative center to optimize the district’s current space.
“We had some space that wasn’t being used to its maximum capacity in our Blue Jay Tower so we moved our district offices just last week actually to Blue Jay Tower to vacate our old district office, and it will be renovated into a elementary campus,” he said.
The new elementary school, which will be renovated this summer and is expected to open this fall, will be able to serve 300 students.
The district also plans to integrate technology into existing classrooms to reduce the need for computer labs in its 18 buildings throughout the district.
The Park Hill School District is forming an efficiency task force to make annual recommendations about potential innovations that to improve economic efficiency.
Park Hill has already saved an estimated $2.5 million through the last five years due to better energy management and behaviors.
Paul Kelly, assistant superintendent for business and technology, said in coming years he could also see a greater emphasis on online learning opportunities and the need for more flexible spaces.
“I think as the state reviews the rules around what constitutes a school day and what constitutes attendance, some of those things will really begin to save money for districts because that’s going to be clearly a much more efficient way to work,” he said, “and you can make those investments in technology and not so much in the bricks and mortar you used to have to build and maintain.”
Whether it’s community partnerships, renovating existing space or rethinking how students are being taught, Northland administrators said creative problem solving is likely here to stay.
“Those are going to be a more common part of the conversations for all districts in the future,” Jungmann said.