Community Use of Schools Program 2005 Report
Schools have a long tradition of serving as "community centres" or "hubs" in many communities. In Ontario, community groups have historically used school space for free or at a nominal cost to organize activities and events for all age groups ranging from children and youth to seniors. The activities were carried out after-school, in the summer or on weekends.
This role of schools as community hubs has many benefits. One primary benefit is the fostering of strong school-community partnership. This partnership is known to have a very positive and long-lasting impact on local education1 as well as significant value to the community.
However, in 1998 the Ontario government changed this drastically with the creation of a new education funding formula that did not include affordable access to school facilities. Consequently, Boards of Education began to significantly increase the fees to community roups for use of school space. Boards contended that these fees were necessary to cover costs to keep facilities open after school hours including: custodial costs, permit administration, and utilities.
The impact of the increased permit fees on community groups using schools was devastating. It led to an unprecedented reduction in access by community groups to schools and in many cases the closure of essential community programs and activities. The effect was Ontario-wide. By 2004, the provincial government estimated that Boards of Education across Ontario were collecting $29 million in permit fees for community use of schools.
In recognition of the increased fees and reduced access by community groups to school space, the SPACE Coalition (Save Public Access to Community Space Everywhere), a non-partisan network of community organizations was formed in 2001. SPACE is an advocate for the restoration of affordable access to public schools.
The Ontario Government responded to community pressure regarding this problem and promised to restore schools as community hubs. On July 9, 2004 the McGuinty government announced a $20 million in annual funding for a Community Recreation and Use Program, the Community Use of School Program (CUSP).
This program was designed to restore and increase access to schools for not-for-profit community groups by providing an allocation of funds to participating School Boards. This voluntary program is a collaborative venture between the Ministry of Education, the Boards of Education and the Ministry of Tourism and Recreation, with the latter having responsibility for its implementation (the new Ministry of Health Promotion assumed responsibility for the CUSP in 2005).
By October 2005, the government had secured Community Recreation and Use Agreements with all 72 School Boards. Securing these voluntary Agreements took over twelve months. These Agreements required Boards to reduce permit fees for the school year September 2004 to August 2005, with these reductions retroactive to September 1, 2004.
One year after this program was launched by the Ontario government, the SPACE Coalition partnered with the Community Social Planning Council of Toronto (CSPC-T) to conduct a survey of the CUSP, in collaboration with the Social Planning Council of Kitchener-Waterloo and Community Development Halton.
The survey had three main purposes 1) To assess community awareness of the new reduced fees; 2) To determine the impact of the new permit fee policy on community based groups' actual and intended access to local schools after-school, on weekends and in the summer; 3) To identify gaps and priorities for further action on permit fee reductions.
- Ontario's schools play host to a diverse range of community-based groups who utilize school space and facilities to operate a wide variety of non-curricular activities and programs that involve people of all ages, after-school, on weekends and in the summer months.
- Provincial funding provided under the CUSP resulted in sharply lower fees for community use of schools. Lower fees did result in a measurable increase in the utilization of school space and facilities - use of school space increased 25% among current permit users.
- Nearly three-quarters of current permit users (71%) indicated that the permit fee reductions will increase their organizations' use of school space in the 2005/2006.
- Just over half (52%) of current permit users indicated that lower school permit fees will allow them to reduce participant user fees for programs. A significant percentage plan to relocate to school space, expand registrations, and increase hours of programming.
- Almost three fourths (72%) of the current non-users of school space indicated that the reduced fees will allow them to re-locate to schools.
- Awareness of the provincial government's program to reduce the fees community groups pay to use school space and facilities is low. Of the total respondents only54% were aware of CUSP. Among current permit users, 68% were aware of the CUSP.
- Only four out of ten current permit users reported receiving some form of fee reductions.
- A significant majority of respondents (80%) reported that further reductions in permit fees would lead to an increase in their use of school space.
Summary of Recommendations
The report recognizes that all stakeholders have a role to play in expanding community use of schools to ensure that the Community Use of Schools program is successful including: the Government of Ontario; Boards of Education; Municipalities, Community Organizations/Non Profit Sectors and Funders. This Report includes a full set of recommendations for action on the part of these stakeholders (see page 29).
The survey identified a serious awareness gap among current permit users and current non-permit user groups. Addressing this will require:
- All stakeholders need to take action to increase public awareness of the CUSP and the availability of reduced permit fees in local schools: Ministry of Health Promotion, Boards of Education, Municipalities, Community Organizations/Non Profit Sector and Charitable Foundations and Private Sector funders.
- All stakeholders should utilize existing outreach/communication tools such as newsletters, websites, list-serves, forums and various networks to promote public awareness of the CUSP. Boards of Education need to ensure that local information regarding the CUSP and the reduced fees is "user friendly" and easily accessible.
The survey found non-profit organizations have a tremendous desire to utilize schools space and facilities to expand programs and activities. This will require:
- Additional provincial resources to expand the effectiveness of the CUSP and more fully achieve the goals established in the Community Use of Schools Policy Statement (see Appendix 1).
- A willingness on the part of community and non-profit organizations to restart old programs, initiate new ones, re-engage volunteers, and secure funding commitments from community funders to support such initiatives.
- Collaboration by stakeholders in community-based engagement processes and local planning initiatives aimed at identifying programs and activities that are designed to meet community needs: Boards of Education, Trustees and staff, Municipalities and Community Organizations/Non-profits.
The survey demonstrates the value of evaluation and user group feedback in improving program performance, and recommends a formal and ongoing process, including:
- Provincial government working with stakeholders in the production of an annual evaluation report on the outcomes and achievements of the CUSP and recommendations for improvement.