In many towns and villages, the school may be the most important – and sometimes the only – public building. It can serve as the recreation center, the sports field, adult education hub, the meeting hall, and the concert hall. It is often the glue that holds a small community together, acting as a magnet for families and commerce. The loss of its school can undermine a vibrant town, depressing house values and forcing businesses to move.
Schools also play a critical role in large cities. When planning the services that the municipality will build, city officials assume that schools will meet some of the need for green space, playing fields, gyms, and community centers. In dense urban areas with few parks, the school yard is often the only play area available for neighbourhood children. It is where kids learn to ride a bike, practice basketball, play games, and just have a place to run.
It is no accident that many neighbourhoods become known by the name of the local elementary school. Schools anchor a community in ways that shopping malls, streets, stores, and parks never can.
Using a school as a community hub outside of the school day seems to be a “no-brainer”, but this can interfere with the school’s mandate of educating children. Unless these problems are addressed, school staff push back against community use.
- After-school community use adds to the cost of maintenance and upkeep of school buildings in ways that are difficult to accurately measure. Grass-roots non-profit community groups often are unwilling, or unable, to pay these costs. Because their taxes are paying for the school, they believe that they shouldn’t be charged for their use of school facilities. But the funding provided to the school rarely includes any allowance for the cost of community use, only for the education of students.
- The use of school fields by organized sports leagues is particularly problematic. With fixed schedules, these leagues routinely play games when a field is wet. This severely damages the field, especially when the league involves competitive adults. Grass is trampled and dies creating divots and ruts in the field. This interferes with the ability of students to play informally or on organized inter-school teams. The cost of regularly repairing the field is often prohibitive, and when a field is under repair it can’t be used by the students at all.
- Teachers typically need to lock up supplies and student-related materials prior to community use, and then often have to restore the classroom before the start of the day, diverting energy that should be spent on preparing to help students learn.
- The funding for a school building comes out of an “education” budget, not the municipality’s recreation budget. This means that when a school’s student population drops, even for a period as short as a decade, there is pressure to close the school, without much thought being given to the value of the school to the community.
There are even greater obstacles to day-time use of empty rooms in an under-utilized school for much needed community-based services such as medical’s offices, social agencies, charities, and other adult-oriented services.
- There is wide-spread and growing reluctance to have non-staff adults, including parents, mix freely with a school’s students. Most schools have installed locked doors and cameras to control access. This eliminates the possibility of shared entrances, hallways, and bathrooms for non-school uses.
- School buildings are specially designed to allow for the rapid and safe movement of all the school’s students 8 times each day (start and end of: school day, two recess breaks, and lunch), as well as during an emergency. This means a large number of carefully integrated hallways, stairs, and entrances. Isolating an entrance or stairway for adult use will often create a serious safety hazard. Altering the building structure of a school to separate adults and students while maintaining the ability to move students in and out safely is usually prohibitively expensive.
- In urban and sub-urban communities elementary schools are often located in the middle of residential areas. This makes sense: it minimizes the home-school distance and improves student safety going to and from school. Many cities have zoning rules that prohibit commercial operations from locating on these sorts of residential streets.
- Most school parking lots are sized to provide spaces for school staff and a few parents. They were not built to accommodate cars of the staff or clients of community services located in the school. Traffic congestion, including parked cars on the streets surrounding the school, creates significant safety hazards for students rushing to and from school, and upset the area’s residents.