A year after Nova Scotia’s official adoption of the Hub School model and the imposition of a set of school-level regulations, the Province of Ontario is now preparing to embark on a Community Hub initiative of its own. While the Maritime province was first out of the gate in June 2014 with Education Act amendments, the recent “rejection” of three grassroots Hub School projects in the rural communities of Maitland, River John, and Wentworth, has stalled the venture in its tracks.
On August 10, 2015, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne publicly endorsed a special report by provincial consultant Karen Pitre calling for closed public schools to be given a second life as “community hubs.” Premier Wynne and Education Minister Liz Sandals are certainly much more active than their N.S. counterparts in promoting the changes and clearly see ‘hubification’ as a provincial priority.
The Nova Scotia experience, so far, has produced a few bitter lessons for provincial policy-makers and Hub School advocates alike. First and foremost, without committed and determined “cage-busting” political leadership, policy pronouncements go nowhere.
Ontario may be playing ‘catch up’ on hub schools, but that province, with visible political leadership, is taking a far more comprehensive, short- and long-term, approach to transforming schools into hubs.
In Ontario, the hub school initiative is being driven as much by urban neighbourhood imperatives as by rural village concerns. It was all precipitated by the Toronto District School Board governance review conducted by Margaret Wilson and related provincial school facilities studies revealing that the province was littered with “half-empty” and abandoned schools.
Ms. Pitre’s report recommends an immediate measure to lengthen the time allotted for school site disposal, giving public bodies and community groups 180 days to come up with hub proposals. Her plan would also allow prospective buyers to pay less than market value and open the door to shared funding by the province.
Instead of proclaiming legislation and then imposing restrictive regulations, Ontario is looking at clearing away the red tape to preserve schools as public buildings and making space-sharing easier (not harder) for community activities, health clinics, daycares, seniors’ centres, and cafes.
Jumping ahead with enabling legislation without integrating community planning and investing in making it work may turn out to defeat the whole Nova Scotia project. Leaving Hub School advocates to produce proposals without any visible provincial or school board support likely doomed the pilot projects. Two months after the axe fell, River John hub school promoters are getting the ‘runaround’ in their determined attempts to get someone, somewhere to take responsibility for community renewal.
Will Ontario’s Community Hub initiative suffer the same fate? The prospects look brighter in Ontario for a number of reasons. From the beginning, Nova Scotia’s provincial strategy was essentially reactive, driven by a desire to quell a 2013-14 rural earthquake of widespread and fiercely determined local school closure protests. Community hubs were an idea proposed by “outsiders” and almost reluctantly adopted by Nova Scotia education authorities.
Community hubs are already more accepted and common in Ontario than in Nova Scotia even without the enabling legislation. Some 53 examples of hubs are cited in Pitre’s report, most located in urban and suburban communities rather than rural localities. The big push at Queen’s Park is also coming from Toronto and major population centres with far more political clout.
Nova Scotia hub school proponents faced a wall of administrative obstacles and totally unrealistic cost recovery targets, and Ontario is looking instead at clearing away the red tape. In addition, Pitre’s report proposes recognizing the Social Return on Investment (SROI) in hubs. There is a clear recognition that investing in hubs produces social dividends, including lower delinquency rates, better health outcomes, healthier lives for seniors, and higher levels of community trust.
Cage-busting leadership will be required to transform schools and other public buildings into viable community hubs. It starts with tackling the fundamental structural constraints: the need for integrated community planning, the adoption of an integrated cross-departmental service delivery model, and the provision, where needed, of sustainable public funding.
Gaining access to school space is a bigger challenge than finding the keys to Fort Knox. Only a multi-lateral, whole of government approach will break into the educational silo. At the school level, principals will have to accept broader management responsibilities, including commitments in July and August where today there is no visible “property management.”
Creating viable community hubs is a true test of political and educational leadership. Little or nothing that is sustainable will happen without busting open the “iron cage” of education. Only then will we see community hub schools that fill the glaring local social and community service gaps left by the regionalization of public services.
What’s standing in the way of establishing community hubs in emptying and abandoned public schools? What went wrong in Nova Scotia, the Canadian province first out of the gate with enabling legislation? Will Ontario fare any better with a more comprehensive “whole of government” policy framework? And where will we find the “cage-busting ” leadership at the provincial, board, and school levels?