Addressing Childhood Obesity Through Shared School Facilities
Childhood obesity has tripled in the United States over the past 40 years. The epidemic is related to the fact that most communities do not include a built environment that supports healthy physical activity. Through federally mandated school wellness policies, schools are starting to adopt policies that help address this epidemic, but many schools have cut physical education class hours, and many schools don’t have access to fields for outdoor activities. As a result, many school children are still not engaging in an adequate amount of physical activity during school hours. In addition, many children and their families do not have adequate recreational facilities to exercise and play during after school hours.
Historically, schools have had a variety of recreational facilities, such as, gymnasiums, playgrounds, fields, courts, and tracks. However, most of these schools close their property to the public after school hours because of concerns about costs, vandalism, security, maintenance, and liability in the event of injury. At the same time, during these times of fiscal constraint, building duplicate facilities as those already available in community schools is simply not the best use of time or resources.
Fortunately, a promising new tool, known as a shared use agreement, has emerged and addresses many of these concerns. A shared use agreement (SUA) is a formal agreement between two separate government entities, often a school district and a city or county, setting forth the terms and conditions for the shared use of public property. Typically, each party under a shared use agreement helps fund the development, operation, and maintenance of the facilities that will be shared. In so doing, no single party is fully liable for the costs and responsibilities associated with the recreational facilities. Furthermore, after regular school hours, schools can continue to provide their students and the local community with the facilities needed to maintain active and healthy lifestyles, while incurring little to no additional costs.
For these reasons, laws have been enacted in many states that encourage or even require schools to open their facilities to the community. The National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN) has developed a 50-State Scan of Laws Addressing Community Use of Schools that is very useful in identifying policies by state that address community members’ use of school property for non-school purposes. Although some schools have been reluctant to move forward with JUAs, many schools and communities have been pleased with the results: increased funding for the school districts, neighborhood revitalization, and increased physical and social activity.
As interest grows in addressing childhood obesity, demand for more community recreational facilities is likely to increase as well. As a first step, parents and community members can request access to these public facilities by urging their school and local government officials to pursue a shared use agreement. When school facilities or school grounds are made available to the community, the community’s built environment and public health are likely to improve. Making use of school facilities that would otherwise not be used after school hours, allows for a more efficient use of public space and money, and an almost effortless strategy against childhood obesity.
In 2009, NPLAN released legal tools to help create shared use agreements (SUAs) between school districts and local governments. Recognizing that there are a number of ways to administer shared use agreement, NPLAN has developed four model shared use agreements that can serve as a template for communities that wish to open up school recreation facilities for after-hours use.
Schools in some states can receive cost benefits from JUAs. For example, California’s Office of Public School Construction (OPSC) granted almost $190 million to schools to build nearly 250 shared use facilities.
In 1959, the City of Edmonton, Edmonton Catholic Schools, and Edmonton Public Schools (Alberta, Canada) entered a JUA to optimize use of publicly funded facilities. This 40-year JUA is still in place today.
California School Board Association (CSBA) monitors state and national educational policymaking activity and advising board members, superintendents, and state and national leaders of the impact of such activity on local school governance. CSBA has a sample board policy on shared use agreements. This sample board policy provides guidance for school districts to share the costs and risks of using school or community facilities with other entities.
New York City, NY launched a schoolyards to playgrounds initiative via a shared use agreement: http://www.nyc.gov/portal/site/nycgov/menuitem.c0935b9a57bb4ef3daf2f1c701c789a0/index.jsp?pageID=mayor_press_release&catID=1194&doc_name=http://www.nyc.gov/html/om/html/2007b/pr223-07.html&cc=unused1978&rc=1194&ndi=1
Seattle, WA implemented a complex shared use agreement between the city and school district in an effort to simplify the scheduling of all school and city recreation facilities: http://www.cityofseattle.net/parks/Publications/JointUse.htm
California’s Shared Use Task Force has documented several shared use success stories: http://www.jointuse.org/resources/success-spotlight
Addressing Childhood Obesity Through Shared Recreational Facilities (Safe Routes to School, 2013)
NPLAN developed an Overview Memo for Liability Risks for After-Hours Use of Public School Property to Reduce Obesity: A Fifty-State Survey to assist school and government attorneys in assessing liability risks so that school officials may overcome their reluctance to participate in shared use agreements.
California has very effective shared use policies. The following resources are useful for additional shared use information:
- Joint Use School Partnerships in California: Strategies to Enhance Schools and Communities, a shared report, was developed by the Center for Cities and Schools and Public Health Law and Policy.
- Joint Use 101 was developed by the Joint Use Task Force.