BRADENTON -- Basketball and tennis courts, soccer and football fields; all are found behind locked gates once school hours are over. It has not been without reasons, such as safety, security and liabilities, all of which are factors to consider. But the thousands of kids in need of something constructive to do and a safe place to go after school hours, may be an even more compelling consideration.
A little more than a year ago, Commissioner Michael Gallen challenged the county to open the fields and courts in school yards to the public. He told fellow commissioners, "The gates are locked at a time of day when our kids are looking for something to do." Gallen argued that the space could be utilized by both parents and their children, providing a safe place for recreation by making use of an otherwise idle public resource.
As far back as 1995, a inter-local agreement between Manatee County and the Manatee School District attempted to do just that. The 13 or so elementary schools that are participating in the open gate programs are doing so under that 1995 agreement.
The revised effort to further the program was presented by Cindy Turner, Parks and Recreation, and Mike Pendley, Manatee County School District, at the Manatee Council of Governments meeting Tuesday.
Pendley says, "the challenges of safety and security are still issues. We are at a time where security is tighter." He then added that the county does recognize the need for joint usage of school recreation equipment, facilities and land. Pendley warned, however, that "we have to be careful to how we do it."
Joint-use playgrounds present both costs and savings to the county. Financially, the largest cost comes from keeping the lights on. To light fields and courts could cost each school many thousands of dollars annually, but the savings to a community include better health, reduced crime and free facility use, which adds to the quality of life.
At the meeting, Pendley introduced KaBOOM, a non-profit dedicated to playgrounds for children. They provide joint-use grants that help to open up parks that previously weren't available to the public. KaBOOM offers $30,000 if half of that amount can be matched to open at least eight parks. These funds are designed to kick start the programs, but come with some guidelines.
Some of the KaBOOM requirements may be hard to meet because there are branding elements which challenge school district policies. Barbara Harvey, District 1 School Board member, asked if other grants were being pursued. Pendlay answered that currently, there were not, but promised he would look into it.
Overall, the council was in favor of continuing expansion of the program and unlocking more gates to provide more activities for the public. Their main concern was safety, and whether the grounds and equipment could withstand the treatment the public would deliver.
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