School districts often face difficult challenges accommodating community members who wish to rent, lease or otherwise access school buildings and grounds. Primary among those challenges are managing a rental program, staffing events, and getting cooperation from school ADs and principals who often aren’t inclined to allow outside events on their campuses.

All can seem a bit overwhelming, especially taking into account that a district’s primary responsibility is educating children and maintaining facilities for school activities.

New bond funded upgraded facilities and prompted a need for change

After passing a large bond initiative in 2008 to renovate their entire portfolio of classrooms, theaters and athletic facilities, Facilitron partner San Mateo Union High School District decided to take a different approach to handling the anticipated new demand from their community. They created an entirely new department to manage facility requests—tackling head on a challenge that often perturbs many other school districts.

The new department, designed from the onset to be funded by facility rental revenues, would be in charge of handling the new demand for the district’s upgraded facilities and would work to build a positive relationship with the community. To begin, the department consisted of only a facility use coordinator and one part-time “utility” worker on staff. The utility worker concept was created to help overcome staffing challenges and so that regular custodial or maintenance workers weren’t burdened with tasks such as unlocking facilities and ensuring outside groups were abiding by district policies.

“After our facilities were upgraded, demand from community groups increased and we needed a strong system in place to manage the process while keeping facility conditions suitable for the next school day,” said Dwayne Taylor, SMUHSD’s Facility Use Program Manager.

The completion of a new theater in 2013 sparked a flood of requests for dance recitals, speaking engagements, musicals and plays while classroom renovations brought in community forums, small group meetings, and evening workshops. The new athletic facilities attracted not only youth sports, but professional leagues as well as the movie and television industry. Demand was substantial.

The Utility Worker: Staffing events and building the relationship between schools and community

The new department performed well and helped foster a new harmony between community groups and schools. The utility worker position expanded beyond simply hosting events by outside rental groups and into assisting with large after-school internal events—games featuring the school’s own teams and theatrical performances by school performing arts groups.

Not only did this ensure a more positive experience at public performances and for visiting teams and community organizations using school facilities, it avoided burdening custodial day staff or site administrators and helped reduce overtime pay and day-staff burnout.

By 2018, the number of district utility workers had grown to 14, in full-time union positions, with an additional crew of eight substitute utility workers waiting in the wings.

“My team are the Swiss Army knives of the district,” Taylor explained. “We collaborate with site-based facility managers on supplemental projects in order to keep the schools clean and the staff happy.”

Continuing to expand, utility workers now cover everything from cobweb abatement in large gym windows to dusting vertical blinds, power washing bleachers and hand weeding landscaped areas.

“These positions are union positions with the job description of grounds and light maintenance,” Taylor explained.

Substantial benefits: jobs, revenue, maintenance and equipment

The new department, which expected upwards of 25% higher rental revenue before COVID (10% actual after COVID adjustment), was credited for solving tensions between site staff and outside renters and resistance from school sites who approved more facility use because of the benefits of the added attention by the utility crews and a new revenue share disbursement program. The new revenue share program supported educational needs at each school site by purchasing desks, bar stools, trash bins, soccer and lacrosse goals, and many other items using revenue from facility rentals.

Facilities Use Program: Ready and serving in new ways

After closing for most of 2020, the Facilities Use Program participated in opening the County of San Mateo’s vaccination clinics at schools across the district. This undertaking involved working with local county and city agencies, providing sanitized facilities that met all CDC guidelines, and creating safe locations used to vaccinate approximately 516 individuals per day.

Another contribution from district to community during the health crisis came in May, 2020 when the Facilities Use Program assisted in opening high school tracks across the district for public use. Utility crews used Facilitron’s new Attendee Management feature as a safety precaution documenting all participants using the track for potential contact tracing investigations.

As of May 16, 2021 SMUHSD has open availability to reservation requests in both indoor and outdoor sites with some restrictions remaining in place. At the end of May, the district conducted multiple graduation ceremonies planned and managed by the Facilities Use department whose staff coordinates setup, layout, flow of traffic and spectators, cleanliness and constantly evolving capacity limits.