Public school districts are rarely without any financial woes, but the economic conditions of the past several years have left many in dire straits. Districts across the country have been forced to close schools, and programs and services that could be considered nonessential have been cut in a great number of those that remain open. Faced with the possibility of having to eliminate recreation and sports programs, administrators at many schools and colleges have found that partnering with other entities has allowed them to continue or even improve their offerings to students.
Like many others across the country, the Midland, MI, Public Schools district in recent years has faced severe funding cuts, which threatened its ability to offer a range of elective and after-school programs. This summer, when the district announced that financial issues would force it to close the pools and eliminate after-school sports at its middle schools, the nonprofit Greater Midland Community Centers (GMCC), Midland, MI, proposed that it could take over the district’s sports and recreation programming.
“School sports is a pretty vibrant piece of middle school social life for a lot of kids,” says Chris Tointon, president and CEO of the organization. “It gives them a chance to be engaged outside of school hours and to be active and healthy.”
GMCC already had a strong relationship with many local schools. In addition to housing two classrooms used for programs for the district’s cognitively impaired students, the organization’s main branch also has hosted a neighboring middle school’s physical education classes for decades.
GMCC’s proposal was accepted, and the organization set about raising funds to repair the schools’ pools and keep them open. Tointon says the organization had expected that it would take a year and a half to raise the $125,000 it needed for the repairs and the first few years of maintenance, but it reached its goal in just 30 days.
The funds came from a variety of community sources: Between the team of dedicated supporters, including swim coaches and “swim moms” who made dozens of calls to solicit donations, and the children who participated in a Laps for Loot swimathon, the center already had surpassed its first-year fundraising goal when the Midland Area Community Foundation pitched in with a $30,000 donation.
Now that the pools are back in use, they are used for school physical education classes during the day. GMCC takes over during after-school hours, programming community swim teams and lessons as well as Special Olympics training and other events.
The partnership with GMCC also has allowed the schools to continue offering other after-school sports programs. Some of the teachers and coaches initially were nervous about how this would play out, Tointon says, but GMCC has worked with the schools to maintain the continuity of programming.
Football, basketball, swimming, wrestling, volleyball, and track and field are all done at the schools, and the students still wear the uniforms associated with their teams. The student-athletes are coached by the same school teachers and community members as before—the difference is that at 2:40 p.m. each day, those coaches now become employees of GMCC.
As part of the agreement, GMCC pledged that it would not raise the pay-to-play fees that were instituted by the district several years ago—and the organization also does not receive any management fees from the schools. It is able to run the programs on the same revenues because its operational costs are lower, Tointon says.
GMCC’s management saves more than $200,000 per year on middle school athletics and $60,000 a year on the pools because its staffing costs are lower and it can take advantage of shared services and purchasing. In Michigan, schools must pay 25 percent of teachers’ salaries into a retirement fund. GMCC does not have to pay that, making it less expensive to employ the same teachers for after-school programming.
Although GMCC only covers its costs in managing the district’s programming, it benefits from the relationship through access to the schools’ fields, gyms, pools and coaches for its own community programming, Tointon says. What is more, GMCC now can better market its own recreational programs to the district’s students, offering those who do not find a place on their school’s team the chance to play anyway.
Another perk is that the partnership has improved the community’s perception of what the organization does.
“I think most people knew what we did and that we were good at what we did, but I think now people have a greater affinity because the Greater Midland Community Centers came in and saved programs that they cared greatly about,” Tointon says. “They understand that we did this not to make money off it, but because as a rec provider in the community, we feel it’s our inherent duty to make sure that every kid has an opportunity to participate, every kid has an equal opportunity to be a part of a sports team and learn in that environment all the life skills that go along with it.”
Nonprofit organizations are not the only ones getting involved with school sports and recreation programming. The board of the Ball-Chatham Public School District in central Illinois recently voted to form a partnership with for-profit company FitClub, which operates three health club locations and has about 14,000 members in nearby Springfield, IL.
The district originally approached St. John’s Hospital, also in Springfield, about partnering to build a competitive lap pool that would allow the district’s Glenwood High School to have a swim team. Hospital administrators were interested, but because they did not have experience in managing pools, they brought the idea to FitClub, a for-profit club that already housed the hospital’s AthletiCare sports medicine and rehabilitation facility, says Kevin Imhoff, the club’s president and CEO.
Imhoff, a Glenwood High School alumnus, liked the idea and wanted to get involved. FitClub’s proposal, which was approved 6-1 on Sept. 26, includes not only the pool that the school wanted but an AthletiCare facility and full-service for-profit fitness club.
The new fitness and aquatics facility will be built on the school’s land, a project that Imhoff’s H&I Real Estate company will oversee. According to the agreement, H&I will fund the entire construction costs (currently estimated at around $6 million) and will lease the land from the school district for a period of 25 years, with an option to renew for another 25 years. The district will then lease the aquatics facility from H&I. Likewise, FitClub will lease the health club area, and St. John’s will lease the AthletiCare facility from H&I.
The pool will be shared by the FitClub and the school, which will pay FitClub about $20,000 per month to maintain and service the facility. Imhoff says the school will have first round of refusal for its 50 percent (40 hours per week) of use to accommodate its swim team training and events. The school will be involved in the management of the pool. It already has created an action committee, which contributed some ideas toward the design of the pool. Those ideas include changing the pool from six to eight lanes so the school can host state swim meets and adding a deck that extends outside for families to enjoy during the summer months.
The FitClub location on the school’s grounds will operate as a regular for-profit fitness center, and membership rates will be in line with other FitClub locations, but Imhoff says the entire facility will be a community resource as the club will offer half-price memberships and recreational pool usage to anyone that the school district identifies as being on the free school lunch program.
During the summer, the pool will be open to nonmembers in the community through day passes and packages. The school’s students, faculty and staff members also will receive discounted membership offers.
Going forward, Imhoff says the club plans to work with the school to offer some before- and after-school programming as well as summer fitness programming for students.
“The school is willing to work with us to make the gym and some of the grounds available for that, and we can make our facility available to them for some of their physical education programming,” he says.
Although Imhoff says that the public’s reaction to the plan has been overwhelmingly positive, some people have questioned the for-profit’s motives for getting involved. Imhoff says that although he expects to generate revenue from the increasing value of the real estate, he will be lucky to break even on the fitness club aspect of the investment. And his ownership benefits the school in a monetary way.
“The nice thing about the deal from a community synergy point of view is that it makes the school property that is currently not generating any tax income taxable,” Imhoff says. “I will be paying property taxes on the entire facility, and the vast majority of that payment will come back to the school district.”
The opportunity to play a role in improving the health of the kids in his own community is at the core of his interest in the deal, Imhoff says, adding that FitClub previously has worked with nonprofits and hospitals in the area on community wellness programs, but that partnering with the school district and St. John’s will allow the club to make a greater impact.
“We’re going to be working with St. John’s Hospital AthletiCare to provide in-school programming for these kids on proper nutrition and diet and why exercise is important, to encourage them to really make some positive lifestyle changes,” Imhoff says. “We’ll also be working with the school to make some healthy choices in the school lunch program that they offer.”
Imhoff says that the Ball-Chatham School District is particularly progressive, but that more school districts will soon look into public-private partnerships as the continuing economic problems force them to keep fiscal responsibility at the forefront of school programming. He says he hopes that other for-profit clubs will find ways to get involved because they offer unique benefits that tax-exempt nonprofits cannot.
“I’m looking forward to getting into family fitness and community fitness for the first time,” Imhoff says. “[Planning the partnership has] been a real educational experience for me and very exciting. I see the opportunity to make an impact on the children here, which is something that I think our industry needs to really take seriously and move forward with.”
‘THE W’ REC CENTER IS A WIN-WIN FOR WARTBURG AND WAVERLY
Some colleges also are seeing the benefits of partnerships. In 2008, Wartburg College, a private college in Waverly, IA, opened a $31 million recreation center to be shared with members of the Waverly community.
Wartburg used a public bond issue to build The Wartburg-Waverly Sports and Fitness center—aka “The W.” The facility includes a 6,500-square-foot fitness center with traditional strength and cardio equipment as well as machines designed with older or less-able-bodied users in mind. The center also includes group exercise studios, a climbing wall, several sports courts, indoor running tracks, massage and therapy facilities and a zero-depth entry leisure pool with a waterslide. The pool connects to a six-lane, 25-yard competition lap pool.
The W also has a private training room for its NCAA Division III student-athletes, which its executive director, Jim Langel, says was created so community members would not feel intimidated or outnumbered. Of the school’s student body of 1,800, around 600 are student-athletes.
Through the terms of the 35-year renewable agreement, the city pays Wartburg $150,000 per year to run its community programming. For the first eight years, Waverly also will chip in $600,000 each year that The W does not meet its annual revenue goals of approximately $2 million.
The $150,000 per year that Wartburg receives to administer the programming is the same amount that it budgeted for before it had access to The W, Langel says. He adds that although some taxpayers originally balked at the financial implications of the partnership, the cost is lower than the city would have incurred had it built and maintained a facility on its own.
“There were community members that were concerned that it was something that would not be used and that it was too much money,” Langel says. “But the response has been really positive since they’ve been able to see what The W can offer.”
The W has so far served a good portion of Waverly’s population of just under 10,000 residents. Last year, it sold 989 memberships (for a total of 2,515 members), and Langel says it already has surpassed those figures in 2011. Those numbers do not include Wartburg students, who automatically become members when they pay the school’s mandatory activity fees.
The facility also is open to nonmembers through day passes and group exercise classes. Wartburg administers the city’s municipal youth leagues and tennis and swim lessons.
Langel says that Wartburg and Waverly work closely to ensure that both The W’s students’ and community users’ needs are met. The W has an advisory board of eight, which is made up of four Wartburg staff members, a city council member and three community members appointed by Waverly’s mayor.
“We meet quarterly, at the very least, to discuss fees and programming, and to make sure we’re running similar or better community rec programs than before,” Langel says.