Schools have long been viewed as the heart and soul of communities across Oklahoma, serving as gathering places for little league practices, cheerleader tryouts, Boy Scout and Girl Scout meetings and civic get-togethers. They've supplied safe places to play for generations and added value to the community beyond their most basic function of educating children.
However, for fear of costly lawsuits and their potential drain to already-strained budgets, schools across Oklahoma have begun to lock their doors and turn out their lights after school ends each day.
Why does this matter? Because Oklahoma children aren't getting adequate recreational opportunities during and after school hours. They're too often left unsupervised and unengaged in their communities once the school day concludes. The health of our children and the overall well-being of Oklahoma communities are suffering; Oklahoma ranks 48th in overall health, one in three Oklahoma kids is overweight or obese, and Oklahomans are among the least physically active in the nation.
Increasing access to recreational facilities at schools has emerged as one of the most promising strategies for creating more opportunities for Oklahoma children and families and for improving the safety and health of Oklahoma's communities. This promise is rooted in the realization that even the most poorly designed and underserved neighborhoods include schools. In an era of never-ending budget shortfalls, maximizing access to existing facilities — rather than trying to construct new ones — is the most efficient and economical use of public resources. School facilities naturally fill that role in every community.
The Shared Use Project seeks to educate Oklahomans about the importance of connecting schools and communities through cooperative agreements. Shared-use legislation, championed by Gov. Mary Fallin, the American Heart Association and the Oklahoma Fit Kids Coalition, was passed by the Legislature in 2012 and went into effect Thursday. This legislation helps remove the fear of lawsuits from schools by further limiting the liability placed on a school that opens its facility for recreational purposes.
Increasing the number of shared-use agreements throughout Oklahoma offers school districts the opportunity to open their facilities for community use and show the value they bring to communities. This also paves the way for greater community access to school property by allowing the district to share with another community group the costs associated with keeping their lights on and doors unlocked for after-hours use.
The Shared Use Project can help shape a more safe and healthy Oklahoma for generations to come.
England is program director for the Oklahoma Fit Kids Coalition.