Hard feelings over Grand Forks Public Schools’ budget problems seem to be popping up in unexpected places.
During a Monday discussion about federal grant money at a City Council meeting, council members expressed their reservations about approving $99,700 for a new playground at Wilder Elementary School.
The council approved the grant, but not before questioning if the money for the project should be distributed by the city.
“The district continues to spend taxpayer money but can’t afford to buy playground equipment,” council member Dana Sande said. “It doesn’t add up.”
The Grand Forks school district had submitted an application on behalf of the Wilder Parent Teacher Organization to the city’s Community Development Block Grant program. The program distributes federal grant money to local organizations through an application process.
A Wilder PTO playground committee and a separate district playground committee have been working to provide the school with a new playground for two and half years, according to PTO playground committee co-chairmen Eric Burin.
Burin said the project was initiated and sustained by the Wilder PTO, but the school district has contributed support and labor to it.
The school’s playground equipment was struck by a car and damaged several years ago. The district received a $25,000 insurance payment to fix the playground, but Burin said parents wanted to take the playground to the next level.
“As the father of two, I can tell you I’ve never heard someone say ‘Let’s have a play date at Wilder,’” he said.
A fundraising campaign began and raised about $26,000, according to Burin. More money was added to the pot after the project was approved for grants through other organizations. The CDBG grant gives the PTO the remaining funds needed to building the playground.
Council President Hal Gershman added that the playground would serve the entire neighborhood as a park so its renovation would impact more than just students and their parents.
Council member Ken Vein agreed.
“I think we have an opportunity to make a difference,” he said.
While council member Doug Christensen said he supported the project and those organizing it, he added that he was worried about setting a precedent where the city gives money to other tax-collecting entities for projects. He and Sande questioned why the school board couldn’t fund the project.
“I think we know why,” came a quick quip from Gershman, referencing the district’s $5.4 million budget deficit projected for the 2012-2013 school year.
Burin said Tuesday that the school district and the Grand Forks Park District has received CDBG funding in the past for projects.
Despite the questions and opposition, that grant and others included in the program were approved by a vote of 6-1, with council member Terry Bjerke being the sole dissenter.
For a larger image of Wilder’s playground aspirations, click the link below.