Bluffs Advocate

Schools

Community Hubs in Ontario

An end to short-sighted school closings

By David Clandfield

Community Hubs in Ontario            Oh, goody! A new government report is out. Community Hubs in Ontario: A Strategic Framework and Action Plan. It was prepared by consultant Karen Pitre for Premier Kathleen Wynne. Last fall, Wynne declared community hubs a priority and told her ministers to get cracking to make them a reality.

Now I've been writing and talking about community hubs for five years, and about school-community relations going back almost forty years, so I do welcome even a belated move in the right direction. Pitre and her advisory group have described many of the barriers that make community hubs in schools difficult and say many of the things that those of us who support school hubs wanted to see reflected in public policy. At the same time, despite Pitre's energy and commitment, some of her proposals are quite timid and others may be wishful thinking unless we see government and its civil service radically change their approach to education and community development.

Community hubs have been on the public agenda for quite a while. They appeal to those who want the consolidation of services to save money. But hubs are also supported as a way to reduce poverty, counteract youth violence, and build strong neighbourhoods generally. A decade ago, the United Way issued two reports, Poverty by Postal Code (2004) and Strong Neighbourhoods – A Call to Action (2005). They paved the way for a number of hub-like centres in Toronto's priority neighbourhoods. Their job was to coordinate, often on one site, various social and health services: such as medical, dental, pre-school and family programs, settlement for newcomers, outreach for at-risk youth, and recreation. (www.unitedwaytyr.com).

Since such programs have educational implications too, they logically fit within the mandate of our public schools. In 2009, the Toronto District School Board issued a paper on "Full-Service Schools" that suggested locating hub services in neighbourhood schools, using a particular integrated services model popular in the USA since the mid-1990s. Although the initiative lost momentum with its author's departure from the TDSB, community involvement in schools is alive and well in the Model Schools initiative.

Anyway, bingo. Community hub development could save all those local schools threatened with closure. And the Premier likes it. But with the current dip in school enrolments, the Ministry of Education has increased its pressure on school boards to close and sell them. Even as Premiers McGuinty and Wynne successively praised the virtues of community hubs, their governments did nothing to halt the disposal of the very public property where hubs could thrive.

The best efforts of local communities and boards ran into the barriers described by Janet Bojti in our recent April issue:

The Ministry's funding formula does not count t he use of school space for anything other than teaching school-aged children. Space used for hub activities such as daycares, adult education, family services, and pediatric clinics, which the government says it supports, is called "surplus" under the formula and schools that house them are therefore "under-utilized." This language allows government to get away with selling valuable public assets. But it is dishonest and misleading.

Once a school is "under-utilized," it enters a process leading to closure and disposal. The process is supposedly consultative, but it is quick, few alternatives are considered, and board officials hold all the cards. A closed school means hub space is lost. The schools receiving the displaced kids lose potential hub space also. It is insane.

Many hub uses of school space need funds to keep them up and to extend access beyond regular school hours or into school holidays. School boards, facing big funding cuts from the Ministry, turn to rental charges and user fees, excluding communities that need services most and can afford them least. And if a school does go up for sale, there is a short window during which it can be acquired by other public entities (other school boards, the municipality, provincial departments) after which it must be sold at Fair Market Value, effectively putting it even further out of reach for local communities

So will the Pitre report help? The answer is a definite maybe. We can't get into everything here but here is a first stab at what is good or timid or unrealistic in the report.

There are detailed descriptions of the way in which siloed funding and red tape foil community efforts to save neighbourhood or village schools by rethinking themselves as community hubs. Pitre comes up with bureaucratic strategies and suggested changes to legislation to break these down. We learn that deputy ministers are all on record as saying how they look forward to working together. Really? Only time will tell, but seeing reruns of Yes, Minister may help to curb any galloping enthusiasm. My own inside experience of the Ministry of Education and school boards suggests that community hubs are more likely outside the school system than within it. I'd like to be proved wrong, but current Minister Liz Sandals and her hatchet jobber Margaret Wilson requiring the TDSB to speed up its school closings do not give me much hope.

Pitre, in contrast, recommends slowing down the school closure process to allow communities more time to come up with workable hub solutions, cut through red tape and find funding sources. There is talk of relaxing the Full Market Value requirement for some school sales at the Ministry's discretion, so that local agencies and consortia get a look in to keep a public asset open for health and social services at least. Great, but it is timid to say the least. If schools are to remain at the heart of city neighbourhoods or rural communities, there must be a moratorium on all school closings, while the way to make community hubs work within local schools is worked out.

There is a great deal of talk about how the hubs must be responsive to community-based initiatives, offer services that communities identify for themselves, be accountable to local folks. But then the report reverts to talking about service provision to clients. Communities will have choice; experts will provide; government will have the last say through regulation or funding. They may talk bottom up, but they practise top down. When this discussion comes to a local school, the community must fight hard to exercise local control. Until municipalities have more control of their taxing powers and school boards recover some local levy rights, private fundraising and public-private partnerships could either make it impossible for poorer communities to meet such goals or remove much of the decision-making power to commercial and private interests.

The last point to make now is that the location of community hubs in or around schools rather than elsewhere does not only work to help keep those schools alive and preserve public assets for public use. It can help transform those schools into places of interactive learning with communities: not separate units for pre-school, school-age, adult and senior activities, but ones where inter-generational learning is a daily reality; not separate delivery silos for health and social services, but ones where there can be a regular exchange of learning with the school; school food gardens flourishing with community involvement; vaccination programs in which children and the community can learn together all about them; cycling education and road safety for all ages; physical activities and oral histories bringing schools and local residents together. This is a vision that could have been the justification for school-based hubs and an end to short-sighted school closures. Sadly it is not central to Pitre's report this time, but perhaps if we all work at it, we could push back the educational vision of Margaret Wilson and Liz Sandals for a generation or more. And public education will make sense to us all again.

UFCW