Creative Financings

One of the most gratifying aspects in the architectural field is working with educational institutions to design facilities that can meet the needs of students not only today, but in the future. Knowing that you’ve played some part in shaping young lives by helping design schools to provide optimal learning conditions for inquisitive minds brings an extra sense of satisfaction to your accomplishments.

However, not even the noblest design is accomplished without funding. The humblest project requires appropriate financing that has the approval of a superintendent, a school board and, optimally, the community. Theoretically, the grand opening of a new or remodeled facility is the cherry on the ice cream sundae, the piece de resistance of a beautiful undertaking.

Disaster Relief

Securing appropriate funding can take many forms, but cooperation is critical in virtually all cases. For example, the De Soto 73 School District in Missouri faced a daunting challenge in May 2003, after a devastating tornado tore through the quiet, little community. The town’s junior high school gym was totally demolished, a second gym at the adjoining high school was seriously damaged and the roof of another school was blown off. Ultimately, weakened beams led to the decision to close the high school gym. It also was necessary to close down the second gym.

The indomitable spirit of the community of 6,000 people, though, quickly turned this disaster into an opportunity for growth and development. Several times in the previous decade the district had failed to get a bond issue passed by local voters that would enable it to refurbish buildings nearly a half-century old.

After the clean-up from the tornado began, however, the district’s board of directors, school administrators and patrons decided to“build back better,” in the words of Terry Noble, superintendent of schools for the De Soto 73 School District.“We looked at the feasibility of moving the junior high school to the east side of the campus, with the junior high inheriting the existing high school gym,” says Noble. “We then considered the opportunity to remodel and expand the high school gym in the old junior high location.”

Because of the tornado, a De Soto High School alumnus, state representative Wes Wagner, introduced an emergency bill in the Missouri Legislature to allow passage of bond issues at a smaller percentage than normal in the time immediately following the storm.

The legislature subsequently passed a special waiver for school districts in the affected areas, allowing the districts to place bond issues on the August 2003 ballot that required a four-of-seven voter approval, rather than the customary two-thirds approval for school issues. This proved to be a critical point, because voters subsequently passed a $7.6-million bond issue with about 66 percent approval.

That number would have been just short of the usual two-thirds majority. Combined with a $1.25-million insurance settlement for the destroyed gymnasium, however, the district embarked upon an $8.85-million project.

Additionally, the district applied for grant money from the Missouri Division of Natural Resources for some performance contracting, an energy payback program of heating and cooling upgrades for windows. Thus, through an unexpected windfall of insurance money, a grant application and a temporary change in state laws, De Soto was able to move forward with its renovation efforts. Beyond all this, the destruction of the old high school actually allowed the district to move forward with remodeling previously thwarted.

Working Together

Sometimes it isn’t just money that is involved in creative approaches to budgets. In the small south central Missouri town of Dixon, for example, the idea for a new multipurpose educational building started originally five to seven years ago. The district had purchased additional property with the hope that it be used for that purpose.

The Dixon R-1 School District draws from an area population of slightly more than 6,000 people in Pulaski, Phelps and Maries counties, and includes an elementary school, a middle school and a high school.

What ultimately enabled the district to move forward, according to former superintendent Barry Morrow, was the willingness of Dixon community residents to refinance an existing bond issue. “Our current bonding capacity was going to lapse in March 2007,” says Morrow. “We refinanced bonds and paid them off early, which led to the current push to move on this project.”

The $2.1-million bond issue that passed in April 2005 maintained the district’s existing tax rate. It allowed for the district to add on to the elementary facilities a building that would house four kindergarten rooms, four pre-school rooms and an elementary school gymnasium, in addition to remodeling other rooms to serve as the Parents As Teachers meeting room and a nurse’s office. A corridor connects the new portion of the existing elementary school building with the new structure, creating a new entrance to the new wing.

The Dixon community was integral in supporting the project in another, vital way. “With this proposal,” says Morrow, “we had to go to the city and ask for a street to be closed, vacated and donated to the school district. That was accomplished prior to having the issue placed on the ballot.”

The entire project is a testament to the willingness of the entire Dixon community to work together to achieve a common goal. Morrow says it was “impressive to see the district and the community make this new facility the focal point for the area.”

Ground was broken in December 2005, and the project was completed in July 2006. It features a full-size gymnasium with a performing platform for plays and musicals, four pre-school rooms with restrooms in each and a back door adjacent to the pre-school playground. The latter marks a considerable improvement over the previous situation, in which the pre-school had been housed in a separate building across the street.

Getting the Green

Different forms of financing are useful when applied to green technology, too. Daylighting, a Leadership in Energy Efficient Designs (LEED) concept that diffuses light in a non-blinding way, has become quite a valuable addition to many new architectural designs for schools. With daylighting, sunlight is controlled and dispersed in a room, changing gradually during the course of a day. Studies have indicated that daylighting has resulted in a 20-percent improvement in learning by students.

Improvements underway in the Fulton School District in Missouri are using daylighting and other green technology with no additional tax burden to the residents. Rather than increasing yearly taxes, an $8-million bond issue approved by voters in April 2005 has allowed the district to extend the debt incurred over a longer period of time at the present rate of $0.58.

The bond issue passed by voters will pay dividends for many decades. Designs being instituted within all of the schools in the district will bring user-friendly technology front and center for all of the district’s students. In planning for the bond issue, the district looked at what its schools needed to be better, including a new location near some woods in a beautiful, green environment.

A new, six-classroom science wing at Fulton High School features an outdoor classroom that can work in conjunction with nearby greenhouses and a vo-ag (vocational-agricultural) building. The district is unique in developing joint programs involving science, life science and vo-ag synergy.

Significantly, a new educational center is being designed as a “two-in-one” facility, with two separate entrances. One side will house four programs, including an Alternative Placement Center for students who are suspended from traditional high school or middle school, so they can continue to do classwork during their suspension. It will contain the GED Options program, where students will be required to work or volunteer for extra requirements in life skills while preparing to take their GED.

There also will be an alternative middle school program; an alternative high school program for students who prefer smaller, more individualized settings than what is traditional; and both high school and middle school programs at the Fulton Academy on that same side of the structure.

The other side will include optional daycare, Parents As Teachers, early childhood special education and an early intervention pre-school program for pre-kindergarten students. All in all, the Fulton Alternative School will be a national service learning leader school when up and running in time for the 2007-08 school year.

‘Green’ construction is regional in nature. Shipping distance for many materials must be limited to meet LEED certification. The scope of alternative and renewable energy can apply to embedded energy and pollution in manufacturing processes for building materials, finishes and furnishings, e.g., roofing materials, radiant panels and solar collector panels.

“Paying the piper” is a reality for any project. With a little creativity, a little diplomacy and a little flexibility, however, great results can be achieved that benefit everyone involved and stay within pre-ordained budgets.

David Kromm is president and owner of Kromm, Rikimaru & Johansen (KRJ), a St. Louis-based architectural firm that offers complete architectural services, including master planning and architectural and interior design. Established in 1956, the company’s practice focuses on “architecture that builds communities,” providing long-range planning and comprehensive services in three distinct areas: education, religious and civic facilities. For more information, contact 314/432-7020 or