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Neighbors: Friends or Foes?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017  
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS

So, let's make the most of this beautiful day.
Since we're together we might as well say:
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won't you be my neighbor?

By Fred M. Rogers


For school properties situated on open campuses, neighbors surrounding the school can be great friends and supporters but sometimes, unfortunately, they might prove to be the school’s harshest critics. The school head must protect interests on campus while also preserving positive relations with nearby residents or businesses.

When The Howard School in Atlanta opened its doors on a new campus in the city’s west side, many of the “neighbors” were vacant lots or industrial-type facilities. In the last five years, however, new businesses have moved into the area, bringing traffic concerns with them. “It’s literally grown up around us,” said Scott Hamilton, assistant head of school. “This area has just exploded.”

With only one egress from the campus, traffic has worsened in the past few years, especially during dropoff and pickup times. The school is not able to operate a staggered schedule because students come from 60 zip codes around Atlanta, and many families participate in mixed-age carpools.

Parking also is limited on campus. On special event days, faculty and staff must park in a nearby open field and trek a bit to the buildings. Sometimes even that sacrifice does not provide enough spaces for guests to park, causing the school to find other accommodattions. A graduation dinner for seniors, for example, must be held off campus.

Hamilton and colleagues hope to see some relief in the near future. The school plans to build a new high school building and add another egress that will spread out the flow of vehicles as well as increase parking spaces.

 One of the school’s neighbors, a new apartment complex, has been very cordial, inviting the faculty to dine in their clubhouse at the start of the school year and even going so far as to build a turn lane onto a nearby busy street to ease some of the traffic flow. In addition, the apartment clubhouse operates a coffee shop (open to the public) that has proven to be popular with school parents.

In the vein of being neighborly, Howard School representatives have communicated construction plans with area businesses and the apartment community, and will continue to do so as the work unfolds. Neighbors also know they can call the school with any questions.

In addition to communicating with neighbors regarding issues that may impact them, Hamilton recommended that school heads join the neighborhood association (if one exists) and attend meetings regularly. The school also should designate a person on staff to handle calls from neighbors. At Howard, the CFO gets that job, though Hamilton said complaints are infrequent.

A school might also offer its space for neighborhood meetings or other programs, free of charge. On a few occasions, Howard School has allowed local film production companies to use its parking lot in the evenings and on weekends.

Schools must be cautious about allowing their space to be used for non-school events by non-school personnel, however. While the idea of being a good neighbor should be applauded, the school’s liability, insurance, and security all must be addressed before a partnership can be established.

Charleston Collegiate School in John’s Island, SC, last year signed an agreement with a local farmers market to lease it parking lot on Saturdays. With a rich farming history in the area, such markets are quite common. A particular market, which had operated for about five years, lost its space and approached Charleston Collegiate about using the school’s parking lot. Head of School Hacker Burr welcomed the opportunity to support a local business. “It helps us to be a part of our community,” he said.

The school has enjoyed benefits as well. School families appreciate the convenience of the farmers market, which attracts about 500 shoppers every weekend. Some of the market’s patrons had never visited campus before, which gave the school great exposure. The market also has proven to be educational for students, some of whom have started selling their own wares there. School families and students have sold eggs from their own chickens and various craft items.  

“Entrepreneurship and financial literacy are among our school pillars,” Burr said. “Kids are getting to venture into entrepreneurship right here on campus. Plus, some of the best marketing we can get is having our students interacting with customers, shaking hands, and talking about the school.”

Burr and his division heads communicate regularly with the owners of the farmers market to keep them informed about school happenings, as they serve somewhat as ambassadors for Charleston Collegiate when shoppers inquire about the school.

Burr did receive some criticism from a neighbor who was unhappy about weekend traffic in the area. The neighbor also questioned whether the school was permitted to operate a for-profit business on campus. The school earns about $5,000 per year from the lease with the farmers market, but various rentals and sales are not uncommon at schools. Spirit shops, used uniform sales, sports clinics, and camps typically fall into for-profit status, whether they are run by the school or by outside groups. Schools must ensure that liability insurance is extended to cover any external operations. Schools may also want to review IRS information regarding unrelated business income tax. 

Most people will agree that good schools make good neighbors. In fact, many people move to a particular neighborhood specifically to be in proximity to the school of their choice, whether it is an independent school or a public school. Everyone can expect traffic during morning and afternoon rush, as well as for football games and other events. After all, no one expects to live in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood or on Sesame Street, but as long as the school communicates well with its surrounding residents and responds to their concerns, everyone can be called a good neighbor. 

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