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Toward a grander central: a district's main office shouldn't necessarily be last on the list of facility improvement needs. (Special section: construction trends).

Alan Hutchinson's least favorite office game is playing tag. But the school district treasurer and CFO has had lots of practice, with "phone tag and e-mail tag and every other tag you can think of," he says.

Such is life when your daytime home is a portable structure next to a central office that holds only about one-third of the district's administrative staff. The rest of the staff reside at sites scattered throughout the school system's boundaries. It certainly complicates meeting planning and collaborative decision-making.

Collaboration is important to Lakota Local School District in Ohio, for its namesake as much as anything else. After all, the American Indian word Lakota means "coming together."

This summer, that's exactly what Hutchinson and his colleagues have done. Soon before the move to a brand new central office facility large enough to hold everyone, Superintendent Kathleen Klink said that being together for idea-sharing was what the team looked forward to most.

While it's difficult for administrators dealing with a brutal fiscal environment to even conceive of spending money outside of the classroom, some situations justify it. Growing pains, health and safety welfare issues (like lack of handicapped accessibility and poor indoor air quality) and technology requirements are a few common reasons.

But needed central office renovations, additions and new construction don't always actually happen. Projects may be presented to voters as a separate bond issue or pulled from an overall issue at the 11th hour, facilities experts say. Or a "new" central office may simply mean recycling a closed school.

When dollars are available, cost control is a major concern. "The wants will be greater than the budget, I would say, 99 percent of the time," says Craig Rambo, president and director of architecture for the Cincinnati-based consulting firm McGill Smith Punshon.

While there are few experts in central office design and construction, the vendor options are expansive, says Judy Marks, associate director of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities. The reason? Any architect with office space experience could potentially get the job done.

Here's how two districts funded, gained support for, and completed their new central office projects. Each cost about $2.2 million.

Ocean Springs (Miss.) School District

Central office completed: Fall 2002

Former quarters: A city-owned former high school building, circa 1929. The district and city decided its auditorium and other features would better fit a cultural center.

Funding: The district set aside some funds and obtained additional money from the state. Although the public's approval wasn't needed, Superintendent Anna P. Hurt says the district still had to "sell" the project. The chamber of commerce and city helped with public relations efforts to show that the old facility wasn't conducive to an office complex, and community consensus supported the decision, she says.

Vendor: The district chose Slaughter/Allred/McNabb, a regional educational consulting and construction firm that had worked with Ocean Springs before.

District use: Centrally located between an elementary and alternative school, the facility has suites for the superintendent's office and executive boardroom, as well as the business office with common area. Other offices include the child nutrition department, substitute services, student support services and the Healthy Jackson County partnership office. A technology training lab, large upstairs storage area and boardroom accommodating 80 people are other highlights. Hurt is happy to have hot running water, missing from the old building.

Design highlights: Corridors leading to offices can be locked off from the lobby when the building is used after hours, says architect Chet Allred. He notes that dumbwaiters were installed to move records and other materials from the main floor to the storage area. The main exterior focal point is the roof's octagonal cupola, which can be seen inside from the lobby.

Words of wisdom: "I think one of the best things we did was have each of the different [departments] submit their ideas for their space, instead of the architect just coming out with pre-sketched ideas. We based it on need and built up from that," Hurt says.

Lakota Local School District, Liberty Township, Ohio

Central office completed: Summer 2003

Former quarters: Built in 1973 and expanded in 1990, the main office was much too small for the growing district. Located off-site at various locations were the special services department, the technology department, the business manager, food services, athletic director and educators on special assignment. "You can imagine, it's not very efficient and it's not very effective," said Superintendent Klink just before the move. A common scenario: community members would come to the central office and find out the people they needed to see were stationed elsewhere.

Funding: "The fact that we're not taxing [the public] to get it done makes it much more acceptable," Klink says.

"I don't know if we would have even gone to the voters for this particular building if we didn't have this unique way of funding it."

The project was funded by leftover maintenance dollars and investment interest earnings from an earlier bond issue, which drew lower construction bids than expected, CFO Hutchinson says. The sale of a district-owned house contributed, as well.

Then the central office project itself was set up in a cost-efficient way. A single-point responsibility process, allowable by state law, meant the district was not liable for costs over the guaranteed maximum price, Hutchinson explains. Through an agreement with the construction company, a manager took responsibility for the project once other vendors needed had been hired by the board.

Vendors: It was the first district project for management firm Dugan and Myers Construction; architects from McGill Smith Punshon had formerly done a Lakota elementary school renovation. Both were discovered through an RFP process.

District use: All administrative offices are now together. Because the tech department had formerly taken over an entire wing in one high school, a significant amount of space there has been freed for academic use.

Design highlights: Important to the interior design is flexibility to accommodate departments as they grow and change, says Rambo of McGill Smith Punshon. The roof of the structure, which appears to be pitched but is actually flat, hides the exterior facility's equipment, he adds. This keeps the building from being an eyesore in its residential neighborhood.

Words of wisdom: "Communicate, communicate, communicate," says Klink. "It's become very clear to me that the people moving into this space always need to know what's going on. They need to be in the loop."

A New Breed of Central Office

"People either lovingly or not so lovingly called it the Pink Palace," says Superintendent Larry Aceves. While the converted warehouse's exterior paint has faded a bit, the nickname has stuck.

Welcome to Franklin-McKinley School District in San Jose, Calif., where the central office is called the district service center and the dental fillings are free.

Dentists donate their time to the facility's dental clinic so students can receive cavity fillings and preventative sealants. Another facility extra is the health clinic with two nurses for immunizations, check-ups and mental health screenings. Aceves explains that the vision his predecessor had for the space back in the early '90s has remained unchanged--one-stop shopping for the community. The building cost about $1.6 million to upgrade.

One-stop it is. City offices such as parks and recreation and children's services reside in the building at no charge, and space is rented out to the local Catholic Charities office and other school districts needing storage (storage is plentiful for Franklin-McKinley, too, with many visitors commenting on the Costco-like food services area, Aceves says).

Middle school students can learn anger management and parents, technology. A probation officer works from the office, too. "We think it's much more humane for [kids in trouble] to come here than to the police department downtown," Aceves says. He adds that the whole lot of services, which include translators, is especially necessary in an immigrant-heavy city like San Jose.

There are close to 100 permanent staff in the building, and the meeting rooms are also open to city, county and community groups. "Sometimes I have a hard time having my own meetings because [the rooms have] been booked," the superintendent says.

Despite its warehouse shell and the paint color, the 103,000-square-foot center has aesthetics, such as a glass atrium reception area. You can't beat the outside views either, which include a creek and a new K-8 school built on adjacent property. Aceves adds, "When it snows up in the mountains, I can sometimes see it from my window."

Melissa Ezarik, mezarik@edmediagroup.com, is features editor.
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Author:Ezarik, Melissa
Publication:District Administration
Date:Aug 1, 2003
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