One of the most familiar commons across North America is, unfortunately, one of the most underused—the school buildings and grounds that exist in every community.
After the school bell rings in the afternoon, on weekends and vacation days, over the summer, these publicly funded facilities are typically off limits to kids, their families and the rest of the community. (And keep in mind that private and parochial schools are publicly funded too through generous tax deductions bestowed upon their contributors, who then pay less in taxes).
This means we are denied access to gyms, recreational facilities and equipment, theaters, classrooms, libraries, kitchens and other resources we pay for with our tax dollars. (In some places, even outdoor playgrounds are locked up after school.) This represents a huge missed opportunity for local communities, which need more gathering place to hold meetings, stage performances, host events, play sports, get exercise, offer classes and generally have fun together.
It’s simple “common sense” to open up schools and other taxpayer-funded buildings more widely to the public, notes Robert Ogilvie, vice-president of ChangeLab Solutions. He believes this sharing have a profound effect, especially in low-income neighborhoods. “Everywhere has a school.”
“Many kids are at a loss for safe places to play. Would be gardeners in apartment buildings are looking for space to grow vegetables and fruit. Libraries have cut back their hours. Food service programs for the elderly and homebound are in need of kitchens,” notes Ogilvie, who is co-author of Opening School Grounds to the Community After Hours.
So what’s stopping us from taking better advantage of schools, libraries, community centers, parks and other public facilities right in our midst?
Fears about liability, vandalism and funding are the biggest obstacles, but in reality they don’t pose the big problems people assume. Many states already protect public institutions in liability cases, Ogilvie says.
As for vandalism, he points out that more people using schools and other public facilities actually deters senseless damage, especially when supervisors are on hand. “A place where people are is not the place where vandals operate— they don’t want witnesses.”
And it’s far cheaper to run recreational, educational and community programs out of an existing building than building a new one— a key advantage, Ogilvie says, in a fiscally-tight era when public institutions face deep budget cuts. Schools, recreation departments and other community services can share overhead and staff costs. “Even conservatives love this idea because it’s a more efficient use of resources.”
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“Most states currently have laws that encourage or even require schools to open their facilities to the community…” notes the ChangeLab Solutions website. “Nonetheless, school officials may be reluctant to do so, cautious about the expense in times of increasingly tight budgets.”
That’s why Ogilvie and his colleagues at Oakland-based organization champion Joint Use Agreements as a method to make it easier and less risky for communities to share public facilities with the public. As Playing Smart, their recent Joint Use Toolkit states, “Although many communities informally agree to share facilities, a well-crafted Joint Use agreement can help things go smoothly—from coordinating scheduling and staffing to handling maintenance and possibility of injury.”
Spokane, Washington first adopted Joint Use agreements in 1932, and Seattle claims to have done it even earlier. In the 1980s San Jose and other cities embarked on successful campaigns to thwart gang activity by opening up public facilities for youth programs.
Ogilvie points to Texas as a surprising leader in the field today, thanks to a handbook on Joint Use for schools and public libraries published by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. “Combining school and public library resources and facilities can improve student achievement and residents’ quality of life while saving tax dollars at the same time,” he wrote in a recent blog on the Community Commons website.
Schools, libraries and other public institutions benefit from these arrangements too, Ogilvie explains. “It makes them into places for everyone, not just for kids and their families. That changes the whole equation in how people view them.”
ChangeLab Solutions—which describes its mission as “law & public innovation for the common good”—began as a campaign to reduce smoking in California and has evolved into a national organization addressing a range of public health issues from childhood obesity to urban design and affordable housing that encourage healthy living.
“We want the healthy to choice to be the easy choice for people,” Ogilvie says, which is why the organization partners with the YMCA, United Way, American Planning Association, Project for Public Spaces, Urban Land Institute and a number of local public health departments.
Their work on sharing public facilities for recreational and community use grew out of efforts to promote physical activity in low- and middle-income communities. Ogilvie notes with alarm that while childhood obesity is declining in some upper income communities, it is still rising among African-Americans and Latinos.
Ogilvie—who was born in Grenada and grew up in Jamaica and Toronto—got involved in community issues while working on a Ph.D. in political science at Columbia University, which led to his first book Voluntarism, Community Life and the American Ethic. For 20 years, he’s worked to improve low- and middle-income neighborhoods as Director of Volunteers at the Partnership for the Homeless in New York City, faculty at the University of California-Berkeley’s Department of City and Regional Planning, a consultant and at ChangeLab Solutions.