With changing demographics, the high cost of new buildings and falling enrolment numbers, New Brunswick should think about multi-use community schools that also include a public library, recreational facilities, aquatic centre, fitness centres and even retirement homes..

“The concept of community schools is that they should be multi-use buildings, a community building and not just a school,” says Charles Cirtwill, executive vice-president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax. He says schools have traditionally been considered the centre of a community and this concept just takes that idea to a new level of practicality.

He says multi-use buildings would provide space for classrooms and learning centres, but also bring recreational facilities, libraries and retirement homes under the same roof. In that way, classrooms that aren’t being used by students can be changed into something else. He says the idea is already being used in both rural and urban centres in other parts of Canada, including downtown Edmonton where office space at a school is being used by such agencies as the police department and YMCA. And by putting retirement residences next to schools, it provides a chance to bridge generation gaps between the young and old. Cirtwill says this trend has already occurred in some places where students make regular visits to retirement homes.

Aubrey Kirkpatrick, director of finance and community relations for School District 2 in Moncton, says there have been discussions in New Brunswick about changing the way schools are designed and built. School District 2 administers English-language schools in southeastern New Brunswick. He says the idea of including a library, pool, theatre or some other type of municipal service inside a provincially-run school is being accepted and in some cases already in place. Riverview High School, for example, is home to the Riverview Aquatic Centre, which is open for public swimming and even private birthday parties. The school’s theatre is also used regularly by the non-profit Riverview Arts Centre group to present concerts and other entertainment events. Quite often, schools are home to computers that can be used by the public.

“Some people are really interested in this idea,” Kirkpatrick says. “But the present system of the way schools get built hasn’t allowed for that discussion to happen yet.” He says it would probably work better in rural areas, but many factors, like security for children in the schools, would have to be carefully worked out.

New Brunswick is already moving toward the idea of private-public partnerships to build schools and Cirtwill believes we should be going a step further to be ready for demographic changes that are already occurring in this province. Statistics indicate that New Brunswick’s population is shifting away from rural areas to urban centres. At the same time, Atlantic Canada’s population is getting older and there are fewer children of school age. These trends are expected to continue and that has raised alarm bells among universities and employers who are afraid there won’t be enough people to fill all the jobs left by retiring baby boomers. Governments are also worried there won’t be enough working people to feed the economy and pay taxes.

According to the Department of Education, New Brunswick has seen an overall drop in enrolment from 124,942 in 2000 to 110,288 in 2007. In District 2, enrolment has fallen from 17,034 in 2000 to 16,188 in 2007. Similar drops were reported in other districts. The only area that has seen an increase is Dieppe, with enrolment going from 6,913 in 2000 to 7,927 in 2007. This could be largely attributed to the new city’s overall population growth.

As enrolment drops, the need to maintain, repair and build new schools continues to grow.

The promise of new schools for north-end Moncton, Riverview and Rexton are coming as welcome news for parents and educators in those areas, but these new facilities barely open a page in the education infrastructure wish book in New Brunswick.

According to the Department of Education’s 2009-10 capital budget, there are more than 60 priority projects around the province, including 15 proposed new schools. And hundreds more projects are waiting to get on the priority list. It all points toward a system of decaying school infrastructure and a need to divert more money into new construction and repairs while at the same time being mindful of the fact that school enrolment in many areas is actually dropping as the demographics of the province shift from rural to urban centres.

“This is an issue that we as a society need to address,” says Kirkpatrick. “We need to put more resources toward getting schools up to standards, as they should be for our children.

This is a provincial issue that goes beyond party politics. Kirkpatrick says there are 38 schools in the district, many of which are 30 to 50 years old; and together they represent 568 different renovation, repair or maintenance projects that would cost upwards of $80 million. But the district only gets about $1 million a year to put toward these projects. The district has already allocated more than $1.5 million this year for projects. Much of that money will go toward fire integrity upgrades, sprinkler system repairs and other safety-related projects. Fire integrity upgrades are being done at Bessborough, Hillcrest, Riverview Middle, Sunny Brae, Caledonia Regional High and Arnold H. McLeod schools. Kirkpatrick says that doesn’t count the number of schools that need new roofs, heating systems, doors, windows, flooring, washrooms and electrical work. Hanging over all of this is the estimated $48 million or more it could cost to repair and renovate the historic Moncton High School building. Other big priorities for District 2 are major repairs to Moncton High and Bernice MacNaughton High Schools.

The story is similar in School District 1, which administers French-language schools in southern New Brunswick. Last month, close to $1 million in repairs and renovation projects were approved, mainly for windows, floors, roofs, heating systems and other work.

As repairs and maintenance projects move along, the Department of Education has about 15 proposed new schools on its capital budget for 2009-10. Some of those schools will be built through public-private partnerships, where a private developer will design, build, finance and operate the schools then lease them back to the province. Six companies have submitted expressions of interest to build new schools in Rexton and Moncton North. Last week, Education Minister Kelly Lamrock promised a replacement for the aging Gunningsville School. Other new schools have been proposed for Quispamsis, Woodstock, Tabusintac, Upper Miramichi, Dieppe and Restigouche-East.

Elizabeth Beale, president and CEO of the Atlantic Provinces Chamber of Commerce, says the need for infrastructure maintenance weighed against the predicted decrease in demand for schools puts governments in a difficult position. She says declining enrolment in schools and migration of working people from the rural areas into the cities is something that is expected to continue. Provincial governments are hoping to draw new people from the ranks of foreign immigrants and repatriation of former citizens who moved away in their youth in search of better jobs. But Beale says the trends aren’t expected to change over the next 15 years.

“This has real implications for the education system. We expect to see the pool of people coming into universities shrinking by 15 per cent,” Beale says. “This forces us into a different mode of thinking than we had in the past.”