Red tape and rising fees for community groups needing school space



    TORONTO, June 21 /CNW/ - The province has made some good first steps, but
still has a long way to go towards improving community access to schools,
according to a recent survey examining the barriers to accessing school space.
    The Community Social Planning Council and SPACE Coalition released the
results from their 2007 Community Use of Schools Survey at a conference today
at Kipling Collegiate Institute.
    Since 2004, the Ontario Government has been providing $20 million
annually to school Boards under the Community Use of Schools (CUS) program to
reduce fees and increase access to school space by community groups. The
survey shows that in spite of the CUS, some community groups are being left
behind by rising fees for school space, arbitrary application processes, and a
lack of accountability.
    "The government's Community Use program has resulted in some steps
forward, and the $4 million recent funding announcement to open 150 schools in
Toronto this summer was welcomed," said John Campey, executive director of the
Community Social Planning Council of Toronto. "However, we need a plan that
will result in year-long improved access to our schools to fully achieve the
Province's vision of schools as 'hubs.'"
    "Our goal is to achieve more consistent school access in Toronto and
across Ontario. We believe that our publicly-funded school gyms, classrooms,
and playing fields should not be sitting empty because community groups cannot
afford to access them, or the access is blocked," said Susan Fletcher, chair
of the SPACE Coalition.
    "The Toronto Police Services Board has long-recognized the many benefits
that flow from school-based community programs and the important contribution
they make to community safety" said Alok Mukherjee, Chair of the Toronto
Police Services Board. "I would like to recognize and pay tribute to the many
police officers who volunteer their off-duty time as coaches and mentors
through our ProAction Cops and Kids initiative."
    The conference was held at Kipling Collegiate Institute, where principal
Roger Dale has taken a leadership role in forging community partnerships and
promoting community use of school space to expand opportunities for the youth
and parents in his school.

    Backgrounder:

    The SPACE Coalition was formed in 2002 to improve community access to
schools. Its members include: Basket Ball Ontario, Boys and Girls Clubs of
Ontario, Girl Guides of Canada - Ontario Council, Scouts Canada Greater
Toronto Council, United Ways of Ontario, Ontario Special Olympics, Applegrove
Community Complex, Children's Aid Society of Toronto, Canadian Adult and
Community Education Alliance, Community Social Planning Council of Toronto,
Family Services Association of Toronto, Metis Nation of Ontario, Middle Years
Matter Coalition, People for Education, ProAction Cops and Kids, St.
Christopher House.

    Research Purpose

    In February 2007, the Community Social Planning Council of Toronto and
SPACE, a provincial coalition, conducted a follow-up survey to their 2005
evaluation of the provincial Community Use of Schools (CUS) policy, program
and funding. The 2005 survey investigated community groups' awareness of the
$20 million in annual provincial funding to Boards of Education to improve
community use of school space (see SPACE Report:
www.socialplanningtoronto.org). This follow-up 2007 survey examines the
barriers to community groups in accessing school space and makes
recommendations to the Province of Ontario to support their existing CUS
policy and improve access.
    These community surveys are important because there has been a vacuum of
public information on the impacts of the CUS program. The Government of
Ontario provides funding to 72 Boards of Education to support community use of
schools. In exchange, the Ministry of Education receives annual reports from
the 72 Boards of Education on their expenditures and statistics regarding
access to schools. However, there has been no provincial analysis and
evaluation of this policy and program that has been publicly distributed.
Furthermore, there is no provincial mechanism to recommend improvements to
this program from a community perspective.

    Key Findings
    ------------
    1) Community Use of Schools Policy showing some positive benefits

    
    -   A diversity of organizations currently use schools space, such as
        sports clubs, sports organizations, recreational and arts groups,
        social service organizations and social clubs (e.g., Girl Guides and
        Scouts)
    -   28 % of the respondents increased their use of school space in
        2005/2006
    -   32% of the respondents increased their use of school space in
        2006/2007
    -   Close to 6 out of 10 of the respondents who use school space provide
        services and programs to school age children (age 6-12) and youth
        (age 13-24).

    2) Several Barriers to Accessing School Space

    Respondents reported several barriers that limit their access to school
space that fall under three main categories: Fees, Permit Application Process,
and Accountability.

    Fees
    ----
    Fees to access schools continue to rise in spite of the provincial CUS 
funding.

    -   16% of the respondents reported permit fees increases in 2005/2006
        and in 2006/2007
    -   Whereas 27% of the respondents reported a decrease in permit fees in
        2005/2006, only 11% reported a decrease in permit fees the following
        year
    -   1 out of 4 of the respondents cited lower fees as necessary to
        improve their access to school space
    -   Both survey respondents and information on the various Board of
        Education web sites continue to show a diverse patchwork of fee rates
        both between School Board Districts, and even between Catholic and
        Public School Boards in the same geographic area. There are some
        commonalities among Boards: some of the most expensive time periods
        for access are on weekends, or summers after 3:30 pm, or summer
        daytime due to caretakers' overtime costs.
    -   Some School Boards, especially those in some urban areas, have much
        higher rates.

    Cancelled programs

    -   16% of the respondents reported having to cancel their programs in
        2005/2006
    -   Almost 20% of the respondents reported cancelling programs in
        2006/2007

    Available space and times in schools fall short of community needs

    -   23% of the respondents want access to more space, and 18% want times
        that better fit their program needs in order to improve their access
        to school space. Some organizations cannot permit space in summer
        months, or summer evenings because space is not available, and some
        cannot afford space on weekends since those rates are the highest.

    Permit Application Process
    --------------------------
    -   Boards have different community access policies and permit
        application procedures across the Province. Some of these policies
        place particular community groups at a disadvantage, e.g. some Boards
        charge charities lower fees, which disadvantages sports organizations
        for children and youth because they are not allowed to be registered
        charities.
    -   In other situations, there are more applications for space than
        available space. Boards tend to approve on a first come and first
        serve basis, with existing permit holders having the advantage. There
        were no reports of Boards having any access and equity policies on
        community use of schools. Some municipalities have these kinds of
        policies.

    Accountability
    --------------
    -   The patchwork of fees and policies across Ontario are at odds with
        Provincial Policy statement on Community Use of Schools aiming for
        greater consistency and nominal fees.
    -   The decision of who gets access to school space, whether after
        school, weekends and summer, is reported increasingly to be at the
        discretion of the principals. While 37% of the respondents reported
        that the permit office approves permit requests, 36% of the
        respondents cited principals as the person who approves permits.
        There are some principals who do everything to "open the doors" to
        welcome community programs to their schools in order to support the
        development of children, youth, parents and build capacity within the
        community. However, there are others who are not as supportive of
        community use of schools and who use their discretionary powers to
        block community access to school space.
    -   The arbitrary discretion to deny permits or block book space to
        reduce time available for community use at a school level by
        principals and caretakers in some jurisdictions undermines the CUS
        policy at a Provincial level and a local Board level. This patchwork
        results in inequities of access to schools between individual schools
        in a District, and between School Districts. Other School Boards
        approve permits through a central access point (e.g., permit office)
        with no principal or caretaker "veto."

    Recommendations
    ---------------
    We recommend that the Ontario Ministry of Education does the following:

    1. Increase the CUS funding so that school boards can lower fees further
    and have more space available throughout the year at more times
    including: summer, weekends, evenings, after-school.

    -   School boards will be able to pay caretaker overtime or shift
        premiums
    -   School could pay for "site supervisors" when caretakers are not
        available
    -   Funds for additional school board insurance so that uninsured groups
        can afford to access school space
    -   Province to provide the direction and funding support to achieve
        their policy vision on CUS
    -   Province to support a system that will lead to lower fees in expanded
        time periods and will result in a more consistent permit fee rate
        system both within School Board Districts, and across Ontario.

    2. Improve the permit application process so it is straightforward, user-
    friendly, transparent, accessible and accountable. This should include:

    -   Boards need to adopt best practices in order to move towards more
        consistency in the permit application process
    -   Ensure that principals and caretakers cannot block access of user
        groups
    -   Track permit refusals
    -   Implement an accessible and effective dispute resolution process at
        both the local Board and at the provincial level to ensure the CUS
        policy is upheld and that barriers to access are addressed
    -   Design methods to better inform potential users about space
        availability
    -   Increase outreach to improve awareness of the steps to permit
        schools
    -   Develop access and equity access policies and procedures to balance
        the needs of existing long term groups using school space with new
        and emerging community groups.

    3. Improve accountability and the evaluation process

    Table an annual report to the legislature showing how public dollars were
used to improve public access to schools. Involve organizations such as the
SPACE Coalition to be involved in the evaluation process and to develop
indicators to be included in an annual report, such as:

    -   who used/was refused access to school space
    -   reasons for refusal of access
    -   how program outreach/recognition took place
    -   fee structures
    -   monitor areas of clear gaps between needs and access to service
    





For further information:

For further information: Media contacts: Alissa Von Bargen, Community
Social Planning Council of Toronto, (416) 351-0095 x214 or (647) 230-9164
(cell); Susan Fletcher, SPACE Coalition, (416) 461-8143 or (416) 524-8055
(cell)

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COMMUNITY SOCIAL PLANNING COUNCIL OF TORONTO

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