Suburban school superintendent Sandy Lewandowski's May 29 commentary ("The kids are not OK; they need more help") highlighted the compounding effects of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd on our children's mental health. She rightly argued that the return to in-person school does not signify a return to "normal" for our kids, and she called for more school resources to help them heal.
There is another institution that is well-positioned to respond — our park systems. The disruption to children's lives over the past year was experienced unevenly across geographic, socioeconomic and racial-ethnic lines, exacerbating existing disparities. In Minneapolis, the city's 180 neighborhood parks and 49 recreation centers hold the key to engaging kids and families in convenient, accessible programs as well as providing beautiful green spaces for recreation and healing.
We know the profound disruptions in children's lives over the past year have contributed to increases in juvenile crime. The city of Minneapolis should prioritize neighborhood park programming in its spending for public safety, because engaging kids of all ages in quality programming early can help them become healthy, purposeful and resilient leaders in life.
In 2016, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board partnered with the city to commit $11 million per year, through 2036, to rehabilitate neighborhood parks across the city. These funds are targeted exclusively to addressing a backlog of facility repairs and deferred maintenance for recreation centers, playfields, pools and other park amenities across the city.
This work is well underway.
Unfortunately, today the Park Board lacks funding to fully operate and reactivate these parks. Recreation program funding has not kept up with inflation over the long term. Actual neighborhood-based park staff and recreation center hours have been cut by 25 to 30% over the last 20 years. The result leaves our kids less engaged and our recreation centers dark through much of the winter, and with limited hours throughout the summer.
To realize the full potential of our beautiful neighborhood parks, the system needs $2 million more annually to adequately staff recreation centers, sustain neighborhood partnerships and deliver high-quality athletic and nature programs to kids. (The amount is an estimate based on a 2019 Park Board study: "Closing the Gap: Investing in Youth.")
The recovery begins now, as the city shapes its budget. While we may not know for years the full impact of the past year on our children's development and mental health, we do know instinctively that safe, active engagement outdoors will help counteract a year of uncertainty, anxiety and loss.
How we invest now will shape the city's future. Let's be sure to take the long view and focus on our kids.
Barb Schlaefer, of Minneapolis, is running for the Sixth District seat on the Park and Recreation Board.