School safety has become an important topic over the past several years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, roughly 85 percent of public schools have recorded incidents of crime each year. While there are a number of things operationally that can be done to help curb incidents, a school’s layout and design can also contribute to minimizing potential risks for students and staff.

Tri County Area Schools, which serves kids from three separate West Michigan counties, is addressing this need for safe buildings. With a ground breaking on April 14, 2016, Tri County will kick off five phases, over the next five years, of renovations and updates – the first, and most important of which, will be safe and secure entrances at all of their school buildings. The renovations will be funded by a five-year sinking fund proposal that was approved by voters in February of 2015. A sinking fund is a limited property tax, considered a pay-as-you-go method for addressing building repairs and remodeling. Money from a sinking fund cannot be used for things like building maintenance or teacher salary or benefits.

The district’s newest building, the high school, has been around for nearly a quarter of a century. The middle school was built in 1963 and the two elementary schools came about in the 1950s. When Tri County’s buildings were planned and constructed, they were not done so with the same focus on safety that we see in the way schools are designed and built today.

Construction will move along quickly with schools ready to welcome students by the beginning of the 2016-17 school year. The five phases are:

  • Phase 1: Safe and secure entrances at buildings
  • Phase 2: Traffic control improvements and architectural upgrades
  • Phase 3: Elementary school energy, kitchen and roofing upgrades
  • Phase 4: Building renovations and playground improvements
  • Phase 5: Safety and security upgrades at athletic fields


The biggest change to Tri County’s buildings has to do with how visitors enter the buildings. Currently, anyone who visits a school is able to walk throughout the building without having to check-in at the office. While school policy states that they should check-in, the design of the facilities does not dictate that they must. The new entrances will provide school officials the ability to know who is in the buildings at all times.


The current entrance of Tri County Middle School (top) features a dark, unidentifiable overhang. This will be replaced with a canopy (bottom), which provides cover for weather while keeping the area full of light. The canopy is also clearly marked as the building’s entrance.

“We feel the work of Phase 1 will support the community’s desire for more safe and secure entrances to our buildings,” said Allen Cumings, Superintendent for Tri County Schools. “We’ve also worked to provide high quality workmanship that will improve our building aesthetics.”

The buildings will also receive a facelift, giving them a new, fresher look that better reflects the educational standards and offerings for students within the Tri County district.  Additionally, all entrances will be better labeled to make them easier to identify for visitors.

Specifics of phase 1 include:

  • Relocated High School office built adjacent to main entrance
  • The new entrance/office will house reception, administrative offices, conference room, and counseling offices
  • The Middle School will receive a new canopy, vestibule, entrance doors, and renovations that will open up the office to make it feel more welcoming to our students, parents and community.

The main entrance/office at MacNaughton Elementary will be moved to the center of the building. A new canopy and vestibule will be added to control access and clearly identify where the main entrance is located.

“Our community is proud of their local school system,” said Cumings. “This entire process has been community-led. We’ve tried to make these changes a community decision, since they are financially supporting the upgrades.”

To help get the community on board with the school’s needs, the district took a unique route. Rob Patin, a former Tri County teacher, created videos showing the school’s deficiencies and explaining how relatively simple changes could have huge impacts on the schools. A survey was also sent to homes throughout the district asking about the needs of the school. Safety and security came back as the top concern of residents.

“Gaining the trust of the community through quality work in Phase I of the sinking fund is important,” said Cumings. “Our partnership with a firm like Progressive AE will help instill a sense of confidence in the project and the outcomes.”

When asked about what advice he would give other school districts looking to make similar updates to their school, Cumings said, “Listen to your community and allow them to take ownership of the project.”

Stay updated on Tri County’s progress by visiting their website.