Help turn empty schools into community hubs

Posted on August 15, 2015 in Inclusion Delivery System – Opinion/Editorials – Declining enrollment means school boards must close some buildings, but with more flexible rules alternative uses can be found for many of them.
Aug 15 2015.   Editorial

When is a school not a school? When it’s a neighbourhood green space. Or a place where daycare and seniors’ services cohabit in the same building. Or a structure where cultural and recreational services exist to “nourish community life.”

That’s the case an advisory group has made to Premier Kathleen Wynne to transform schools in danger of closing because of declining enrollment into “community hubs” that will continue to serve neighbourhood residents.

Wynne says she is “fully supportive” of the recommendations in the report. And that’s a good thing. It’s clear that some schools must close: school boards shouldn’t hang on to dozens of half-empty buildings at the expense of funding proper services for current students. But it’s also true that school properties should not be sold off in a rush to private interests when some of them can be re-purposed for public service, recreational, and community space.

The advisory group, headed up by Karen Pitre, made 28 recommendations to try and break down the “silos” that prevent community groups from co-operating to buy schools. The report also highlights the need for provincial ministries to cut bureaucratic red tape and work together to take advantage of the opportunity these schools present to house various services under one roof.

Among the recommendations:

– Giving boards of education twice as much time to look for new buyers for a closed school – 180 days instead of just 90. The extra time would help community groups find ways to work together to purchase buildings and give provincial ministries a chance to see if they can make use of the buildings.

– Selling a closed school at less than the market price to make it affordable for community groups to buy the sites to transform them into community hubs.

– Creating a provincial “lead” entity to help build bridges between various players from municipalities to school boards to health agencies and employers to find tenants to create community hubs.

Another idea that might prove even more important was put forth by Toronto District School Board trustee Pamela Gough. That would see the province consider other current uses when it is considering which schools are underused and should be put up for sale. Currently the criteria for whether a school stays open or closed are based solely on enrollment. Low enrollment can mean a school may face closure even though it contains a well-used daycare or recreational facilities.

The report cites the town of Petawawa as an example of how municipalities and school boards can co-operate to create community hubs. Petawawa entered into an agreement with the Renfrew County District School Board to share community recreation facilities. This means students have access to curling and hockey rinks while town residents are able to use school gyms.

In the end, some schools may well be worth saving even if there aren’t enough students in a neighbourhood to fill their halls. It just takes a little co-operation and imagination.

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