Community hubs: a real possibility or a pipe dream?

Community hubs demand co-operation and collaboration between multiple levels of government: the provincial government, municipalities, and school boards.

Only two out of these three levels of government have the power to access money via taxes and user fees – the provincial government and municipalities. And let’s be honest, the Province has the lion’s share of the power and ability to access money!  Municipalities come in second place, when it comes to power and ability to access money… and school boards fall a distant third.

The fact is that school boards have very little power and almost no access to money beyond what is provided by the provincial funding formula for education. In some special instances, money comes to school boards from municipalities based on special agreements.

Case in point… the City of Toronto and the Toronto District School Board have an agreement where the city funds the operation of certain school pools and, in return, it is given exclusive use of these pools in the evenings, on weekends and during summer break. The city’s Parks and Recreation department can use this time to provide swimming lessons and open swim times for the local community. This agreement between a school board and a municipality has been a great example of multiple levels of government working together to create community hubs.

However, as Robin Pilkey, Chair of the TDSB, outlines in a February 15, 2017 Toronto Star editorial entitled,“City must commit to help fund school pools: Pilkey”, the City has cut funding to eleven pools since 2007. The TDSB has kept these pools open since it believed these community pools were important to students and families. However, the TDSB has not received funding from either City or Province to fund these pools. Therefore, money to keep these pools open has been allocated at the expense of fixing schools. These are tough decisions to have been made by the School Board.

“Caught between a rock and hard place” seems an apt description. Close these community pools and see community outrage; or keep these community pools open at the expense of making much-needed repairs in other schools.

In recent days, Toronto Mayor John Tory has said the City of Toronto will cut funding to an additional three pools in order to save money. He announced this without any discussion or meeting with the TDSB, and then has claimed the TDSB will be able to keep these pools open, even without city funding.

At the beginning of this post, we talked about each level of government’s access to power and money. Let’s now examine the issue of accountability. Ironically, when it comes to education, school boards end up with the lion’s share of accountability, even though their power and access to money is very limited. In contrast, municipalities and the provincial government are quick to shirk responsibility for anything to do with education and publicly funded schools, consistently pointing back to school boards bearing the responsibility.

We’re hoping this dynamic seems as odd to you as it does to us. Shouldn’t power and accountability reside in the same place? Community hubs will only be a pipe dream if those levels of government with the most power and access to money take no responsibility for how their decisions impact Ontario citizens and communities.