Schools ARE Municipal community assets (even if we Municipalities don’t own them)

Schools are owned by our communities.

That may seem obvious and over simplistic, but I think it’s a good starting point.  They are community assets.  They are created by our tax dollars to educate our children.  But they educate them in more than simply the curriculum.  They educate our children where they live, they teach them how to socialize and integrate in their communities. Our communities.  Their communities.

Where you went to school says a lot about your world view.  It informs you of who your community is, what’s available to you, who your neighbours are: in many ways school is a large part of an individual’s definition of what their community is.  This is especially true of rural single school communities.  The schools in these communities are often the most common meeting place and the first place that young people meet and get a sense of what defines their community.

The problem is our Municipalities don’t have any say in where our schools are.  There is little public access to the decision making process of where schools will be built or closed.  It is entirely driven by the Ministry of Education’s funding formula, and School Boards, who have little choice but to follow it.  But surely our MPPs and Minister’s are accountable?  Ask them.. the answer you will get is that such decisions as school openings and closings are “a local School Board issue for Trustees to decide”.  Ask a Trustee and they will tell you that while such decisions are technically the School Board’s to make, their hands are ultimately tied by the Ministry’s funding formula.  Some School Boards have even been “punished” by the Ministry of Education by not receiving expected funding in subsequent years because they did not close “appropriate” schools in previous years.

School Boards plan and propose school locations and expansions with little input from Municipalities that are directly affected by school locations.  There are annual meetings between the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) and the Municipalities, which is a huge step forward, but because of the “silo” funding of education these meetings are basically the School Board telling the Municipalities what they ARE going to do, not a meaningful consultation or exchange of ideas.  Municipal Planning Departments expend huge amounts of time and resources evaluating potential development in the short, medium, and long term with the intent of controlling development in ways that are constructive and beneficial to the needs and wants of their community.  Schools absolutely fit this category: large buildings with hundreds of people coming and going every day by foot, car, and bus for decades.  Schools have a large and long term impact on our communities from a Planning perspective.

In London the TVDSB recently approached the City’s Planning Committee to propose a school in the north east of the city abutting the City’s current urban growth boundary.  Several London Councillors spoke against the proposed location as they felt it was not consistent with the plan for there to be no growth to the entire area immediately to the East of the proposed school site.  The request for permission from the TVDSB is an urgent one as funding from the Ministry of Education is contingent on Planning Permission, and time limited.  So effectively a gun is held to the head of London’s Planning Department, the Planning Committee, and Council: it may not be the best location, it may not even fit in your plan, but if you don’t approve it you may not get a school at all and condemn hundreds of children to many more years in portables…

At the same time the TVDSB has attempted to listen to the communities in the South East Summerside area and postponed amalgamations in order to make a more community friendly solution, a position supported by most in the community and consistent with London Planning, but this is all delayed awaiting Ministry funding.

All of this is ridiculous: we have excellent Planning Departments in our Municipalities who do a fantastic job of evaluating and balancing the various needs of our communities and could do the same for school locations.  There is Council oversight of these Planning Departments by elected Municipal Councillors.  But because of the “silo” that education capital funding exists in, there is actually a disincentive for School Boards to consult with, if not utilize this service: School Boards get money to consolidate and build schools from the Province regardless of Municipal input (or the lack thereof).

It’s time our Municipalities had a better say in where our schools are: schools ARE a part of the Planning process, they ARE a central part of our communities, they ARE about more than “the three Rs”, they ARE the first place our children are educated about what their community is and how they define it.  Schools are Public assets that are too important for us not to use every tool we have to best fit them in our communities.

The Province needs to change the way they handle this.  Public funds shouldn’t be spent in such fragmented ways.  I think people have a right to expect that different levels of government would cooperate to spend tax dollars in the most coordinated and efficient way and not be counterproductive.  Yes, this would be hard, but that’s no excuse.  The Premier’s Community Hubs Framework Advisory Group (https://www.ontario.ca/page/community-hubs) is evaluating the potential benefits of such cooperation and advising the Premier directly.

But while we’re waiting for that…

School Boards and Municipalities need to do a better job of sharing our Strategic Plans related to operational and capital budgets.  School Boards need to do a better job of sharing their plans with respect to Student Achievement with Municipalities.  Municipalities need to do a better job of sharing Economic Development and Planning with School Boards.  Just because the Province expects us to behave as if we are in separate “silos” doesn’t mean School Boards and Municipalities have to behave that way: we can, and should, do a better job of managing these Public assets, especially in single school rural communities.

It starts with Councillors and Trustees: we need to do a better job.

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