Community hubs are great, but they won’t keep schools from closing

ANALYSIS: The province is developing a 'community hub' at a former Toronto school site. It’s an interesting first step toward a new way of providing government services, but it won't keep marginal schools open
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Dec 16, 2016
The notion that schools with declining enrolment can be saved via 'community hubs' may prove misguided. (Phill Snel/STF)



After years of consultation and study, the province announced its first “community hub” last week. The site of a former Toronto District School Board high school will be rebuilt and will serve 900 students, with the province kicking in $20 million for 30,000 square feet of space for the hub itself.

A community hub is more or less what it sounds like: a central place where people can access a variety of services offered by different levels of government. The community hub bible, such as it is, says no two are likely to be the same: “Each hub is as unique as the community it serves and is defined by local needs, services and resources,” according to Karen Pitre’s report to the Liberal government last year. One may combine a school with a library and a daycare, while another offers literacy and employment services.

When the government first started signalling its interest in building community hubs, it was explicitly in the context of avoiding school closures. The problem is, bubbling enthusiasm for the new multi-use spaces won’t actually save many schools.

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“People need to understand this is still a sale,” says Marit Stiles, the school board trustee for Davenport, where the new hub will be located. What she means: two other nearby school properties have been shut and sold to private developers. That sale will net the school board $121.5 million.

While the money is obviously welcome in a cash-strapped school board, and the community hub may be an innovative way of keeping at least some spaces in public hands, the most salient point is that Toronto is still losing two school buildings, along with most of the original Bloor-Dufferin site, despite the province’s money and interest. Community hubs may, in some cases, keep some schools open, but not all of them and not everywhere.

The math is as simple as it is grim, and for once it’s not a problem that breaks down on strict urban-rural lines. Toronto’s public board has too many schools for its student enrolment. So do towns across rural and northern Ontario. But if Toronto loses two neighbourhood schools to keep a third open with a community hub, what does that mean for towns that only have one school to begin with?

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Declining enrolment in these school boards isn’t the province’s fault, but the financial challenge school boards face is. Queen's Park has cut funding that was vital to keeping rural schools open, and despite the city’s booming real estate market the Toronto District School Board doesn’t have the tools other boards, including their Catholic counterparts, do — like an education development charge.

The Liberals reject the notion that their financial rules are responsible for school closures, Minister of Education Mitzie Hunter told in a statement: “The TDSB has over 74,000 surplus spaces in their schools, and therefore does not qualify to collect [educational development charges].” Over-built school boards like Toronto can apply for alternative provincial grants, Hunter adds, saying the decision on closures falls to school boards, not the province.

“Locally elected school board trustees have the responsibility to decide where they provide education to their students in consultation with their communities. This includes decisions regarding whether to close a school or partner with a community partner to use excess space.”

Community hubs may indeed save some rural schools that would otherwise be closed. But a community hub isn’t inherently connected to school buildings, either. Pitre’s report lists lodges, libraries, and other buildings aside from schools as examples of northern and rural hubs. In shrinking communities, there’s no shortage of buildings that could be put to alternative uses. That’s a marked contrast from big cities, where schools are often the only large plots of land left to be picked over.

But the fundamental rural dilemma remains: a choice to put a community hub in one town, even if it saves a school, is a decision not to put it in a different one, far away — thus consigning someone else’s school to the list of surplus properties. The fact that rural and northern towns are so distant from each other led many leaders to tell Pitre they were interested in online, “virtual” community hubs. This makes a lot of sense as a way to serve people easily and cheaply. But no child’s school is going to be saved this way.

The worst-case scenario isn’t that community hubs fail to keep schools open. The worst-case scenario is that the perceived success of the Bloor-Dufferin sale gives the province an easy way to get positive headlines out of what is still a loss of public resources.

“In my nightmares, I think, Oh God! We’ve made it too easy for them!” Stiles says, not entirely in jest.

Community hubs are worthwhile, despite the fact that they won’t answer everyone’s prayers. There’s no reason provincial and municipal services need to be spread out among multiple buildings or multiple towns if people will be better served in one central location (or yes, online). School closures are a legitimately hard problem, and there’s no “correct” answer, just a choice of who’s going to suffer and how. Even choosing to keep every school open would mean deciding who would have to foot the resultant tax bill.

Community hubs may save a few schools in Ontario, but they’ll be few and far between.

This story has been updated to include reaction from the Ministry of Education. 

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