Donate space in your school to local community groups
Municipalities around the world share many of the same concerns. To tackle two of them—limited meeting space options for community groups, and lack of involvement in the school system by the larger community—a handful of government agencies in Seattle is partnering to provide one common solution.
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Jerry DeGrieck, Interim Community Health Services Deputy Division Director, Public Health, Seattle & King County
Seattle, Washington, U.S.A. and
Kathy Johnson, Facility Operations Program Manager, Seattle Public Schools
Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.
What they did
In 2012, the City of Seattle’s Office for Education, Mayor Mike McGinn, local school districts, and Seattle Parks and Recreation got together to tackle two local concerns: limited meeting space options for community groups, especially during evening hours, and a perceived lack of involvement in the school system by the larger community. Their response was a program called “Evening Community Meetings in School Libraries,” which opened school libraries to local groups for evening meetings at almost-free rates. The program has been a boon for groups (who need low-cost space) and schools (who’ve seen an uptick in the community’s interest in their work).
A first iteration of the program had been started years earlier but faltered when financial pressure on school districts increased. The program now in place refined the original parameters to better meet everyone’s needs. Now, every public school library in Seattle is available for use by non-commercial community and neighborhood groups between the hours of 6:00 and 9:00 pm most Mondays through Thursdays. Groups can request the space online—first-come, first-served—for a fee of $15 per meeting.
How you can do it
Determine your community’s needs. “Seattle has a very strong network of community groups,” explains Kathy. “As the city’s gotten denser—we’ve added 100,000 people in the past 10 years—these groups have started to run out of places to meet, as a lot of their old spaces are being repurposed to suit the city’s growth.” “This need for new space seemed to peak at a time when many of our schools were seeking funding for remodeling, so they were looking for ways to increase their visibility in the community and get people on board,” says Jerry.
Get the right backers—all of them. In Seattle’s case, the problem of limited meeting spaces was brought up to the mayor by community groups. He was sympathetic and had his office contact the superintendent of schools to look into why the original program had fizzled and what could be done to resurrect it. If you’re starting from scratch as a neighborhood group, Jerry recommends approaching the superintendent of schools if you want to start a district-wide program, or the principal of a particular school if you want to focus on just one. “Getting support from city council and local government is key,” he says, “but don’t ignore the nuts-and-bolts people: contact Maintenance or Facilities at the schools to ask for their input and backing, too. Don’t just go for the school board.”
Make your case. “Talk about why it’s important and why it’s a win-win,” Jerry says. “We see the program as a benefit to the whole community because it helps connect people with the school: they start to form a positive attachment to it and want to support it come bond or voting time,” Kathy explains. Especially now that many schools are not polling places and fewer families have kids, it’s a great way to get people into schools and forge that link with the community.”
Research solutions. Janitorial and security costs had been a factor in the original program going fallow. Kathy says, “Schools are always short budget-wise so they can’t usually give space away, but we wanted to research how to do this most cheaply for the community groups. We looked at custodial schedules to see what spaces in schools are the last to be cleaned each day, and it turned out to be libraries! Libraries also have decent acoustics, chairs and tables… they’re great spaces for many groups to meet in, and using them after school hours wasn’t apt to throw janitors into overtime.”
Hammer out the details. Think and talk through the nitty-gritty of the program. In Seattle’s case, eligible groups can reserve a school library between 6:00 and 9:00 pm most Mondays through Thursdays during the school year. The space costs a flat $15 per meeting unless the group wants to enlist the special help of a custodian, audio/visual specialist, or has other additional needs. Liability insurance for visitors is another issue that needs to be considered. Scenarios vary by group, but the Seattle program’s website provides information about how groups without insurance can secure limited-time coverage (such as with a rider on a sponsoring organization’s existing policy).
Prepare for some pushback. While reception to the program was largely very positive, Kathy reports that some groups were disappointed they couldn’t rent spaces in schools beside libraries, and that some librarians and custodians were worried that the extra traffic would cause damage, messes, or vandalism. “But we’ve had no issues with groups so far,” she says. “We tried to assuage people’s fears by explaining that these are respected community groups—people from the YMCA and day care providers, etc. They want to keep coming back; they have an incentive to be good. Plus we have a one-strike-and-you’re-out policy, though we’ve never had to use it. As for the people who’d like to use other school spaces, they can go through our regular building rental process and pay all the regular fees for renting, administration, HVAC, and custodial.”
Get the word out. “We advertise the program through the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, and word of mouth is also strong,” says Jerry. “So far, 12 community councils have taken advantage of the program, and we’re adding groups at a rate of three or four per year, so we know word is spreading,” Kathy adds.
“We haven’t done a lot of data tracking with this program,” says Jerry, “because we don’t have specific number goals we’re trying to meet. We just want to keep seeing interest in the program, which we are.” “Also, we’ve heard fewer complaints from community groups about their lack of meeting space, so ‘no news is good news’ in that way,” Kathy says.
“Particularly if a school district hasn’t had something like this, it might take a while for everyone to embrace it,” advises Jerry. “Be patient, and be nice to everyone. Talk with everyone who has a problem about how to solve it—don’t say they’re wrong or throw in the towel. Focus on the win-win. Point out—nicely!—that these buildings are community assets; schools know that too, and they will want to partner. Of course there might be times when you don’t have success, but most of the time you will. And remember that no one’s going to get everything they want, but that it is possible to find a win-win situation.”
Kathy says, “Really look at what your goals are. We got big pushback from the district about the cost of doing this, and it took our director some creative thinking to get around that, but that wound up being the linchpin: he understood the dynamics of the city, saw this unmet need, and devised a way to do it with no negative cost impact to the district. We have 600,000 people in Seattle and only 50,000 school-age kids—that’s a small percentage! So designing this program at no cost to schools was paramount to success.”