Throughout history, oil booms have been a paradox. They can bring spectacular economic growth to a community and saddle them with acute growing pains. But for one West Texas school district, the boom has had a silver lining. It’s been the catalyst to fund collaborative 21st Century learning environments for the district’s youngest students, and made Smith System the district’s go-to school furniture manufacturer.
The Backstory: Booming to Bursting
The educators and staff at Midland Independent School District (MISD) in West Texas are living the boom scenario. Between 2010 and 2014, Midland’s community population increased by nearly 25 percent, fueled by surging oil production in the Permian Basin. In turn, new families swelled the district’s K-12 classrooms to capacity, requiring the district to install over 75 portable classrooms throughout its 36 campus sites and 24,000 students. Something had to be done, especially for the primary grades.
Midland’s citizens responded to the crisis at the polls. In November 2012, voters passed a history-making $163 million elementary school’s bond initiative. The bond would provide major funds for renovations and improvements at MISD’s 24 elementary campuses as well as construct three new K-6 elementary schools (opening this fall), each with 800 students.
The Opportunity: Collaborative Learning Classrooms
For MISD educators and staff, the bond offered tremendous opportunity; foremost, to provide 21st Century Learning environments for its youngest students. The new classrooms and furnishings could fully focus on collaborative learning. It was and continues to be an ambitious endeavor! But the experts leading MISD through its expansion have risen to the challenge.
Meet Dan Irons of Lone Star Furnishings, an independent furniture distributor working with MISD, and David Ramirez, MISD’s director of facility design services. They’ve collaborated in allocating bond funds specifically earmarked to outfit MISD’s new elementary classrooms and update the existing ones.
Did passage of the bond referendum change your approach to budgeting and buying classroom furniture for MISD’s elementary schools?
Dan: In the past, the district would usually accept the lowest furniture bid. But the inexpensive furniture has a much shorter life span than the higher-quality school furniture. I had sold MISD Smith System furniture previously, and I suggested a MISD team visit the company’s showroom in Plano, TX, to review the product line depth and its durability. Smith System is built to last. They make a high-quality product at a reasonable price and back it with a long warranty.
David: We have a lot of older, existing furniture and don’t really have a process for tracking lifespan. The referendum budget gave us a fresh start to do that for our elementary schools.
Dan, why did you suggest a visit to the Smith System showroom, and David, how did the visit go?
Dan: I wanted David, some of his new school principals, and a few of the architects to see the furniture and kick it around, so to speak. You really have to see these products first hand to get a sense of their durability and quality. Also, I’ve been in this business a long time, since 1982. I’ve seen the push to collaborative learning, and Smith System has been ahead of the movement. Their classroom products reflect that.
David: Our group really appreciated Smith’s approach. They design to the mindset of kids – large casters make everything easy to move; the functionality is great, and flexible for groupings; very sturdy; wonderful color options. It seemed like Smith System had all the right features to equip our classrooms for the type of learning we wanted to do.
In a collaborative environment, student desks and chairs are being pushed, pulled, dragged, and carried. The engineering has to withstand use and abuse. What makes Smith System furniture unique in this respect? (Dan deferred this question to Mark Simmons, a regional sales manager for Smith System in Texas.)
Mark: Our school desks are made with structural framing between the desk legs that support the leg as it’s being dragged across the floor. This prevents the legs from becoming loose and wobbly over time. Smith’s chairs are made with fully welded frames, no spot welding, no exposed rivets or screws. We put a lifetime warranty on all of our desk and chair frames.
What did MISD decide after the showroom visit?
David: We agreed to make Smith System our district standard for any elementary furniture purchased with the new bond money – for our existing elementary schools and the new ones being built. We began making these bond-specific purchases through Dan in 2013. Lone Star Furnishings has been supplying Smith System products for some of our other K-12 classrooms for years, but this made Smith our preferred go-to manufacturer.
What are the most popular Smith System items MISD has been purchasing for its elementary schools?
Dan: Mini-Diamond desks, the Flavors chair, and the Cascade mobile classroom storage units are standard for typical classrooms. They use the Interchange 3-2-1 tables for pre-K and kindergarten.
David: Smith did a great thing for us. They customized our Cascade storage units with side hooks for coats, and they added whiteboards on the back of the units. Teachers can quickly wheel out the units, turn them around, and create flexible learning centers. It’s a wonderful way to maximize our real estate.
Has MISD had any critical deadlines? If so, how did Lone Star Furnishings meet them?
Dan: Over the past two years, MISD has experienced some very tight deadlines. We’ve had to have the Smith System furniture ready to go as soon as construction was done, sometimes with just a few weeks to spare before school opened. Smith does a great job of labeling every item so it’s easy to unpack, assemble and install. This has been crucial when everything has to ship to one location for assembly and then be distributed to 30 different school campuses for install in both standard classrooms and portable classrooms with ramps.
David: Smith System has a great track record with us!
How have the furnishings held up over the past two years? What kind of feedback have you received?
Dan: There hasn’t been a single problem.
David: All very positive. Our teachers wonder why we didn’t have this furniture before. And those that don’t have it, wonder how soon they can get it. They’re drooling over the ability to change a classroom floor plan so quickly. The furniture is awesome.
Dan, any issues for you as a distributor of Smith System?
Dan: No. They make my job easy. If there’s ever a shipment shortage or if something is damaged, Smith is great. I just pick up the phone and talk to a real person who quickly solves the problem. When you work with Smith, you know you’ll be taken care of.
Midland County, Texas – State and County Quick Facts, U.S. Census Bureau, website: www.quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/48/48329.html
Midland Independent School District, website: www.midlandisd.net/
“Midlanders pass largest bond in city’s history,” by Meredith Moriak, Midland Reporter-Telegram, Nov. 7, 2012.
“Oil Boom Fuels Fastest-Growing Metro Area, Midland, Texas – But at a Price,” by Mike Maciag, Governing, Sept. 13, 2013.
Ongoing reporting on the Texas oil industry by James Osborne, The Dallas Morning News, 2014 and 2015.