Establishing Shared Use Agreements for School Facilities

This blog post was authored by Safe Routes Partnership research advisor Christina Galardi.

Schools often have indoor and outdoor facilities like gyms, running tracks and ball fields, playgrounds, and open spaces that are not in use outside school hours. These facilities could provide easily accessible environments for physical activity and recreation to local residents, especially underserved populations with fewer parks and community centers. Through shared use (or joint use), a school can establish a partnership with park/ recreation departments or community organizations to allow after-school programming or open school grounds for community recreational use after school, on weekends, and during summer and other school vacations.

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According to the 2014 School Health Policies and Practices Study, 46 percent of schools had joint use agreements for use of facilities for outdoor recreation and physical activities. This is an improvement over 2006, when 28.6 percent of schools reported providing community access to physical activity or recreation facilities (Healthy People 2020, PA-10). Other research has reported even higher participation: 69 percent of 360 schools in 48 states reported shared use in one survey (Spengler et al., 2011) and 88.1 percent of schools had facilities used by community groups in a study in North Carolina (Kanters et al., 2014b). However, disparities in participation in shared use may exist by community income and rural/urban locale (Thrun et al., 2016). Children in low-income communities are less likely than children in suburban/urban areas or shared use agreements (Thrun et al., 2016), and urban areas are more likely to have formal or informal shared use agreements than suburban schools (Chace and Vilvens, 2015) or schools in rural communities (Thrun et al., 2016).

Furthermore, schools need support to foster strong partnerships that promote facility use while easing administrative and liability concerns. In a survey of Ohio schools by Chace and Vilvens (2015), top barriers to shared use were “costs related to maintenance, cleaning, or supervision” (68.8%), “liability concerns” (60.0%), “security” (56.3%), and “fear that facilities will not be left in the same shape as found” (53.8%).

In terms of administration, responsibility for costs and maintenance was a reason for not establishing a joint use agreement among 13.7 percent of schools without shared use (Kanters et al., 2014b). However, another study by Kanters and colleagues (2014a) found no significant association between levels of shared use participation and facility operating cost per square foot or per enrolled student. Burbage and others (2014) estimated a cost of only $0.38 per community member to develop and implement a shared use agreement among 18 Los Angeles schools.

Support is also needed to address concerns about potential liability for injuries occurring on school property outside school hours; these concerns were reported by 12.2 percent of North Carolina schools without shared use (Kanters et al., 2014b). In another study, 85.7 percent of schools without shared use felt that stronger state-level legislation was needed to protect schools from liability (Spengler, Connaughton, and Maddock, 2011). Spengler and colleagues (2010) also found that many state liability statutes lacked specific language targeting protection for school facilities and activities common in those settings. Only 41 percent of schools surveyed were familiar with state laws relevant to shared use, and even among those that were, 76 percent still reported concerns about liability (Spengler, Connaughton, and Maddock, 2011).

Liability concerns could be addressed by establishing more formal written agreements concerning shared use. A nationwide sample found that only 25 percent of children lived in communities with formal shared use agreements; children were more than twice as likely to live in communities with shared use addressed in long-range plans (Thrun et al., 2016). Chace and Vilvens (2015) found that only 9.5% of Ohio schools surveyed lacked shared use agreements, but only 38.5 percent had formal, written agreements. The formality of agreements depended on the facility type; formal written agreements were most common when schools shared use of gyms (67.3%), compared with 26.7 percent for shared use of open space. Informal agreements were most common with playgrounds and track facilities. Furthermore, the content and number of legal clauses that addresses scope, cost responsibility, and sustainability of the policy can vary widely across schools (Burbage et al., 2014).

More policy evaluation is needed to establish a link between shared use agreements and levels of physical activity. Studies that focus on students have seen incremental associations between shared use policies and physical activity. Slater and colleagues (2014) found that the prevalence of physical activity participation (i.e., physical activity almost every day, at least once a week, or occasionally) among students increased by one percent for each additional facility space specified by a joint use agreement. Kanters and colleagues (2014a) found a more consistent connection between minutes of physical activity and the number of activities and participants in shared use community programs for girls than boys. However, shared use policies may differ greatly by school, and these partnerships also have the potential to increase physical activity outside the student population among local residents more broadly, which makes impacts on health hard to quantify. Nevertheless, National Physical Activity Plan and Healthy People 2020 target shared use of school facilities as an important opportunity to encourage physical activity, and the American Heart Association has also supported shared use as a strategy to move toward improved cardiovascular health. Beyond opportunities for exercise, schools also identify shared use as promoting a sense of community through improved relationships with taxpayers and local organizations (Chace and Vilvens, 2015).

What steps can we take to strengthen shared use in our communities?

Clarify state-level protections and provide support for local shared use development and implementation. Even among schools that already opened facilities to community use, 78.3% still reported liability concerns (Spengler, Connaughton and Maddock, 2011). When asked about needs to support implementation or continuation of shared use, 56.3% of school facilitators indicated a desire for clearer state liability laws and nearly 1/3 identified a need for model examples, funding, and other resources (Chace and Vilvens, 2015). Liability protections concerning injuries on school property differ by state, and statutes on community recreational use do not always encompass school facilities and related physical activity (Spengler et al., 2013). The American Heart Association has created policy guidance with model language for strong liability protection, and states can also provide other resources for developing shared use agreements, including state-level toolkits and local dissemination plans as well as dedicated efforts from state workgroups to assess and address local barriers (Young et al., 2014).

Ease concerns about facility use and maintenance costs. Conducting a financial analysis can make potential costs transparent, and establishing cost-sharing provisions as part of the joint use agreement could reduce this burden (Spengler, Connaughton, and Carroll, 2011).

Encourage community groups to actively seek shared use partnerships. Surprisingly, 61.8% of North Carolina schools surveyed by Kanters and colleagues (2014b) reported having no requests for shared use from the community as a reason for not having a joint use agreement. From a nationwide sample, children were least likely to live in communities that identified shared use partnerships with community recreation leagues (2%), park districts (2%), before and after school programs (1%), or YMCA programs (1%) (Thrun et al., 2016). Both schools and municipal/community groups should look for opportunities to collaborate.

Taking these steps can help establish schools as community centers promoting health through physical activity for students and local residents alike.


Chace, M., & Vilvens, H. (2015). Opening the Doors for Health: School Administrators’ Perceived Benefits, Barriers, and Needs Related to Shared Use of School Recreational Facilities for Physical Activity. Journal of Physical Activity and Health 12, 1017–1022.

Kanters, M.A., Bocarro, J.N., Filardo, M., Edwards, M.B., McKenzie, T.L., & Floyd, M.F. (2014a). Shared Use of School Facilities With Community Organizations and Afterschool Physical Activity Program Participation : A Cost-Benefit Assessment. Journal of School Health, 84(5), 302-309.

Kanters, M. A., Bocarro, J. N., Moore, R., Floyd, M. F., & Carlton, T. A. (2014b). Afterschool shared use of public school facilities for physical activity in North Carolina. Preventive Medicine, 69, 44–48.

Slater, S., Chriqui, J., Chaloupka, F. J., & Johnston, L. (2014). Joint use policies : Are they related to adolescent behavior ? Preventive Medicine, 69, S37–S43.

Spengler, J.O, Frost, N., Connaughton, D.P. & Prince, D. (2013). Clarifying Liability for After-Hours Community Use of School Recreation Facilities. Annals of Health Law 22(2013), 342-354.

Spengler, J. O., Connaughton, D. P., & Maddock, J. E. (2011). Liability Concerns and Shared Use of School Recreational Facilities in Underserved Communities. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 41(4), 415–420.

Spengler, J., Connaughton, D.,  & Carroll, M. (2011). Addressing Challenges to the Shared Use of School Recreational Facilities. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 82(9), 28-33.

Spengler, J. O., Carroll, M. S., Connaughton, D. P., & Evenson, K. R. (2010). Policies to Promote the Community Use of Schools. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 39(1), 81–88.

Young, D.R., Spengler, J.O., Frost, N., Evenson, K.R., Vincent, J.M., &Whitsel, L. (2014). Promoting Physical Activity Through the Shared Use of School Recreational Spaces : A Policy Statement From the American Heart Association. American Journal of Public Health 104(9), 1583–1589.