In August 2015, the Ontario government released its Community Hubs Action Plan that was developed by an independent panel set up by the government. The Plan describes broad elements will be needed to make it easier for community hubs to be set up. It doesn’t recommend specific actions to remove identified barriers that make it hard to set up a community hub.
Before 1997, schools were owned by their local communities were considered true community assets. Municipalities and School Boards drew on the same local tax base for funding, and worked together to make the best use out of their investment in schools. Sometimes community centres were attached to schools, allowing for use by students in during the school day and the whole community at other times. In other places schools were combined with swimming pools or child cares. In every case the municipality and school board worked together so that large school yards could double as playing fields and parks. It didn’t really matter who held legal title to the facility.
That changed in 1997 when the Province took over the assets and funding of every school board in Ontario. Where the local community owned, and paid for, both municipal and school board facilities, now the Province controlled half of what had been shared services. And decisions about school facilities that had once been local, now came under the control of the Province.
It was inevitable that under this arrangement community needs would take a back seat to the Province’s budgetary needs. School boards were forced to shutter schools and sell land especially in urban areas where land available to builders was both scarce and expensive.
It is in this context that the movement to recreate community hubs in schools was born.
The Community Hub Action Plan notes that there are many barriers including those caused by municipal zoning by-laws, failure of government departments to work together, inadequate and uncoordinated funding, difficulty and cost of renovating a school building to meet the needs of another type of service, and conflicting priorities between the Province, the municipality, the school board, and various social service agencies. It does not identify any specific barrier nor what should be done to remove a barrier.
As such, the action plan is a worthwhile start, but it is only a start. Much more needs to be done in order to move community hubs from a rare occurrence to one that is common and easy to achieve.