Learning to share school facilities in the 21st century can be a complex undertaking. Who pays for what during the design and construction phase? Which facilities can community members use? When can they use these facilities? Who maintains the facilities?

Well-managed, shared facilities answer these questions in written form in agreements signed by school district and community government officials.“You have to figure all this out at the beginning of the process,” says Katherine Peele, FAIA, a principal in the Raleigh, N.C., office of Boney Architects, which has designed a number of shared-use facilities.

For example, Boney designed a massive shared complex in Wilmington, N.C., called Veterans Park. The project got underway when New Hanover County Schools began planning a new high school, middle school and elementary school. A land search turned up 126 acres. In North Carolina, county commissioners must approve the purchase price when a school district acquires land. In conversations with the county, the recreation and parks department voiced an interest in building a park for the community in that area. As a result, the county and the school district purchased 210 acres and jointly developed school facilities and a park side by side.

“The first step was to assemble a master planning committee to assign responsibilities,” says Eddie Anderson, director of Facility Planning and Construction for the school system. Under the plan, the school system would administer the construction of the school buildings and school athletic facilities. The county would oversee the construction of the park facilities. Each would pay its own part of the construction. In certain cases, costs would be split. Infrastructure costs, for example, would be shared, although the county would manage the infrastructure construction. The development cost about $50 million, including $43 million from a school bond issue and $7 million from county coffers.

Boney designed Veterans Park to facilitate sharing. The high school and middle school were set side by side on the site, with a performing arts center in between. The center received separate entrances and separate heating and air conditioning controls so it could be used independently of the school.

On the grounds, Boney designed a football stadium with a field house, locker rooms, offices, a sports medicine center, and ticket and concession facilities. Separate baseball and softball fields were designed with home plates backed up to one another, with a ticket and concession building in between. The high school grounds also include a practice field for football, soccer and lacrosse, six tennis courts and two full-size outdoor basketball courts.

The middle school has another set of fields: a football/soccer field, a baseball and softball field, and two more full-size basketball courts. Finally, the community has several fields, including two soccer/football fields and five baseball fields.

The community and the schools use all the fields, according to Anderson.“The idea is to make it seamless,” he says. “Everyone calls the same phone number to reserve a facility.”

Planning Around Conflicts

While scheduling has not proven difficult, rescheduling can create headaches and revisions to joint-use agreements. What happens, for example, when an event is rained out? “The North Carolina Athletic Association requires that teams must make up rain outs within a certain time,” Anderson says. “Typically, this means the first available day. With a shared facility, the next available day could conflict with a community event. We’ve resolved this by designating that the school has priority use of the school game fields. When something like this happens, the community group would be relocated to another available field, preferably in the same complex.”

Agreements also assign operational responsibilities. Games usually require opening and staffing ticket and concession facilities, as well as the press box and the locker rooms. Who operates the facilities and who cleans up after the event? The Veterans Park agreement assigns operational duties to the host of the event. In all cases, however, the county provides maintenance.

Sharing raises unusual maintenance issues. Anderson notes, for example, that fields can become overused. “If you use a field seven days a week, year round, you will tear it up,” he says. “So you have to schedule time for the field to heal, for the grass to grow and reestablish itself. In some cases, this process can take weeks.”

Another stumbling block relates to the school and community people who care for their athletic fields. The coach of the Ashley baseball team takes great pride in the school’s field. He spends personal time caring for the field. Not all community groups are as careful with the field as the coach would like. “You have to work to balance these kinds of problems,” Anderson says. “You don’t want the coach’s expectations to be too high. Nor, do you want a community group to take advantage of the situation. Everyone has to change mindsets.”

When a group leaves a field in unacceptable condition, a county crew cleans it up, and the committee advises the user group that it must do better or lose its privileges.

A Different Approach: Overlapping Facilities

Indoor physical education facilities designed for everyday use can make sharing more complicated. When Allegan High School in the small community of Allegan, Mich., decided to add a competition swimming pool to its facilities, the community voiced interest in using it. Instead of building one pool, the school built two.

TMP Associates of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., added the new facilities onto the back of the school, next to the parking lot. The architects created a 300-ft.-long undulating glass fa├žade to highlight the 90,000-sq.-ft., joint-use section of the structure.

Swimming was another story. “In Allegan, you have a team that wants to practice, community members that want to take swimming lessons and seniors that want to use the pool for therapy,” says Tim Casai, a principal with TMP.

To eliminate the conflicts, Allegan funded two natatoriums or pools. One is a rectangular competition pool with eight lanes, capable of housing 300 spectators. The school generally fills out this pool’s schedule.

The second pool, separated from the first by a glass wall, features a figure-eight design with shallow areas and warmer water. Expansive windows admit lots of natural light to the facility, making it more relaxed than its competitive neighbor.

“Because we had two separate bodies of water at different temperatures, we had to have two filtration systems, so maintenance costs a bit more for this facility,” Casai says. “But there are synergies, too. One heating plant heats both pools, with separate water pipes passing through a single heat exchanger.”

The pools also required the addition of three community locker rooms: men, women and families.

K-12 students across the district use the competition pool, according to William Hammer, Allegan’s principal. “Not a day goes by when it isn’t used,” he says. Local groups as well as students regularly use the community pool, continues Hammer. There are open swims three days a week from 6:30 to 7:30 a.m. The high school provides lifeguards and has even set up its own training program for lifeguards.

Two certified pool operators or CPOs, employed by the school district, manage and maintain the pools. One serves as the recreation director and schedules use, while the other monitors the chemical levels in the pool and supervises daily cleaning and long-term maintenance.

Community swims carry a nominal fee to help defray costs. Organized community groups that use the facilities also contribute to upkeep. “We bear most of the operating costs,” Hammer says. “But contributions from community groups help pay for equipment and materials.”

Shared physical education facilities have proven popular at Veterans Park, Allegan High School and many other public schools throughout the country, but it takes organization to maintain both order and the facilities themselves. “You need to keep all the players involved,” Hammer says. Make sure that the athletic staff, maintenance staff, custodial staff, community groups and others are all in the loop and on the same page. If you do that, shared facilities can be fabulous.”