Alan Broadbent and Elisabeth McIsacc of Maytree Foundation argue that it’s time to start thinking of schools as integral community hubs.
Reimagining schools as community hubs is a sharp and practical idea that surfaced in recent consultations Maytree hosted on how to reduce poverty in Toronto. We heard from a wide range of thought leaders about the levers available for change in our city. The clear consensus that emerged was around the importance of place-based strategies, and there was a strong endorsement of developing hubs as a critical community asset.
Although Toronto has a strong neighbourhood’s strategy, we are short on anchors for activity in neighbourhoods. But the current review of underutilized schools presents a unique opportunity.
Schools are valuable real estate in city neighbourhoods. While this space may not be maximized now, they offer real potential for re-purposing. Here we have a blank canvas on which we can imagine, create and solve some of the challenges that communities are facing; and it is here that we can look seriously at the opportunity for community hubs. This is not a new idea, but one whose time has come.
Within the Toronto District School Board alone, 68 schools are under review. If they were to close, there is legitimate fear that key community assets currently used by many residents could be lost forever. By converting these schools to community hubs instead, the spaces remain designated to community benefit, and could be re-purposed again if neighbourhood demographics change in the future and a new generation of students needs those schools.
Community hubs provide an opportunity to take city hall and city institutions to local neighbourhoods. The City could offer services and points of access, like city offices, in neighbourhoods that are currently excluded, shifting power and wealth into them. This is already practiced in Seattle where a Director of Neighbourhoods makes sure to spread out the effect of city hall. The City of Hamilton has just picked up this idea as well. Schools are a natural place for becoming such points of access.
By being present in every neighbourhood, the City could learn how to tackle the opportunity gap that is growing in our city. It could even think of itself as an incubator for innovation in how services are delivered and opportunities are created for people living in poverty. This approach could harness energy, resources and investments in neighbourhoods – like child care or pathways to jobs – testing what works and providing proven models for provincial and federal government action.
The immediate and real challenge is that Ontario and its school boards need to find savings. Closing schools is not only about creating efficiencies within budgets, it’s also a potential, albeit one time, revenue generator. In fact, the Ontario Education Act, Regulation 444/98 stipulates that the sale, lease or other disposition of school properties must be at fair market value. There are exceptions related to nursery schools and other child development services, but they don’t take into account the potential schools hold. A first step is to review whether this regulation serves the public interest.
A second step is finding common ground among school boards, municipalities and the province about the purpose and potential of surplus school properties. As there is no forum to do this, these three orders of government should create one. To craft a truly effective partnership that serves the public, community organizations must also be included at the table.
And third, the school boards, province and the cities should together consider removing school ownerships from school boards and transferring them to municipalities with the goal of creating community hubs. The municipality would then be in a position to integrate these school properties into other land use planning decisions, making sure we keep these public buildings and spaces for changing neighbourhood uses. This can only happen if municipalities take a leadership role.
Every neighbourhood has a school. They’re used for learning by children, to be sure. But they are often also the only public or green space, or meeting point for people who live there. Moreover, learning is a lifelong process and involves mental, physical, social, emotional and cultural well-being. It is time we tap the unrealized potential of these community assets.
— contributed by Elizabeth McIsaac, president of Maytree, and Alan Broadbent, chairman and founder of Maytree, and chairman and CEO of Avana Capital Corporation.