School-Community Hubs Are the Essence Of Local Democracy
The key resource is the local school trustee or councillor
By David Clandfield
The issue of school-community hubs in Ontario has probably been shelved until the federal election is over. But that does not mean that it has gone away. In the last edition of the Bluffs Advocate, we talked about the report prepared by Karen Pitre for Premier Kathleen Wynne. There is a concern that a strong, progressive idea may be watered down or even lost if it disappears from view. This progressive idea holds the promise of several good things happening all at the same time:
A broad range of public services and activities could all be located in a focal point—a single site or area in a neighbourhood. The common location not only makes it easier to co-ordinate these offerings, but it also allows them to share office facilities and space, thus avoiding unnecessary duplications and conflicts. Their operations would necessarily be more transparent, due to the shared space. When clients go to this hub for one service, they would discover the others—not through advertising, but by being there physically.
This single focal point, this hub, could be a school, or it could be alongside a school. Services and activities that dovetail closely with the school's purpose could be in one place; these might include daycare, family literacy groups, settlement advice for newcomers, and health screening (dental, sight, hearing, vaccinations).
Other things that could open up the site's facilities and grounds to community use and participation should be seen as part of the hub system: pools, gyms, sports fields, community gardens, community kitchens, art classes, alternative energy exploration, community drama, and music. All public, all open, all barrier-free, and ideally, all cost-free to the immediate user.
The primary focus of schools is education, so all these public services and activities could be tied into that. Schools could include in their curriculum an understanding of health, gardening, cultural diversity in the arts, food security, newcomer challenges, and sustainable energy. At the same time, school projects could serve the community by encouraging research and communication about topics such as growing food in yards or on balconies, changes in the natural environment or local economy, consumer choices, cultural events and festivals, local history, diets and health risks, and so on. All schools do this to some extent, but local neighbours—other than involved parents—rarely get to know or benefit from students' work, and a hub school could have expert knowledge at hand to make sure that this sharing of knowledge did not go off the rails.
So how are community hubs presented in the Pitre report? To begin with, hubs are not limited to school sites. Separate health centres, recreational sites, and sites grouping together innovative entrepreneurs are all included in the list of possible hubs. A number have been established on school sites…once the local school were closed. The possibility of linking schools to the local neighbourhood and its services is a non-starter in such cases. And such hubs do not build on the school as a connector to neighbourhood or community. Some are drop-in centres, some invite people with a particular interest to set up an office or workshop on a site with shared facilities.
Schools could provide a financially viable option, with certain critical conditions mentioned below. And they could also come with a valuable resource to facilitate local decision-making.
School boards and municipalities already share responsibility for many sites around the city. There are shared-use agreements and governance structures to help this work. But there is a crucial difference between the two. The boards cannot levy local taxes while the municipalities can and do. The simple solution would be to return a local levy capacity to school boards to support schools as community hubs, but that may be politically out of reach. Another possibility would be to have the management of all local public premises and facilities brought together under one public, democratic authority. This is done in France and England in different ways, which is to say that it is perfectly feasible. In the Ontario system, one model would be a joint municipality-school board authority with a board bringing together school trustees and councillors. This authority would have access to the property tax base locally, with tax decisions being decided by locally elected officials. There are many details and thorny jurisdictional questions to settle, but space does not allow discussion of that here. Pitre refers to such a possibility in passing. This needs to be pursued further with local voices steering the discussion.
Now when it comes to planning and operating hubs in publicly funded schools, every effort would have to be made to ensure the highest level of local involvement and control possible. We have all been in meetings where administrative staff from the City or the school board have come to consult, or where more distant provincial ministry officials have come to help. They are answerable to authorities not present and decisions made higher up afterwards rarely command the respect that more powerful local decision-making can provide. The key resource then is the local school trustee or councillor. They are answerable to an electorate and as such, would presumably strive to do their jobs in such a way as to make a real difference in the planning and establishment of effective community hubs in schools.