During the past several months, I’ve frequently heard two themes expressed; two themes that, it seems to me, might be combined into one significant solution.

The first is heard when a report is made on the potential cost of facilities needed to support today’s educational programs. The suggested price tag comes as“sticker shock,” particularly in districts where facilities have been neglected for many years. The resulting response is to ask about“alternative funding sources” — essentially finding someone else to pay the bill.

Can we get more money from the state? Doesn’t the Gates Foundation give money to schools? At a new high school, selling naming rights to the football field is sometimes proposed. Alternative funding becomes the phrase of the day and at all subsequent meetings at least one person pops up to ask whether alternative funding sources have been considered or found. (The answer usually is “we’re looking.”)

The second theme is building schools for “community use.” Every school plan that I have seen in the last two years has included community use. But, in almost every one of them, that meant opening the gymnasium, cafeteria and/or auditorium, while securing the rest of the building to keep it safe. That’s a pretty limited view of community use of its multimillion-dollar facility.

So what’s the connection? If a school district truly wants to develop a school that also serves its community, it needs to invite government, nonprofit, for-profit and community-based organizations to a kick-off meeting. That meeting should not be after the fact, but should be a true starting point, with the district presenting its need for a school. The community representatives should be asked how or if there could be some participation, some joint use of the new facility.

The second step is to examine ways in which joint use possibilities might generate alternative funding sources. A school district with which I have worked is getting a swimming pool and gymnasium by partnering with the YMCA. The district provided the site and made its art and music facilities available to the Y after school. In exchange, the Y is using HUD funds to build a pool and gymnasium, and allowing the district to use them during school hours.

Another school, in need of a weight and aerobics room, sought a partner who would build that facility, use it as a commercial gym before and after school hours, and allow the district to have it during the school day. One district has discussed a police substation that would include a weight and aerobics room that could be shared with the school.

A new school has a library. If the school in an area where a library is needed, would the municipality pay for the library portion of the project and even run it for the district? Would a college pay for classrooms it could use at night?

I learned recently about a theater group that is raising $25 million to upgrade its performing arts center. Less than 10 miles away, a high school has given up thoughts of creating its own performance center for lack of funds. Could the two organizations talk to one another?

Schools might get help by building a senior center into a school, obtaining funds for a joint-use kitchen and cafeteria from the municipality, federal programs, foundations or other donors. As a quid pro quo, the district should consider offering its buses as senior citizen transportation during the middle of the day when the buses would otherwise be sitting empty. That kind of cooperation might get seniors to support a school construction project that otherwise would be of no interest to them.

Even as I look at my own list, I realize that many of the alternative funding sources involve local governments but those governments often have access to outside funding for particular programs. Nonprofits, too, can tap funds school districts cannot access.

That is where I think it can all come together. If schools want alternative funding, they need to start by looking for local partners, organizations with which they can share facilities and organizations that may be able to bring in outside funding. But to do that, districts also need to make a commitment to work with those organizations from the very start — and to open their buildings to a wide variety of community uses, not just recreation.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."