After 2022 lifeguard shortage, Park District pledges to ramp up hiring and teen programs next year

AUSTIN — Staffing shortages, youth programs and upgrading park facilities are among the top priorities of the Park District’s 2023 budget.

The Park District plans to spend $545.9 million next year on parks, staff, programs and services, an increase of nearly 7% over the previous year’s budget. This will allow the agency to better manage issues such as staffing shortages that have hampered some programs and offerings this year, and it will ensure park facilities and programs can meet the growing needs of Chicago families, the superintendent parks. Rosa Escareño said this week.

“We must take bold steps to strengthen Chicago’s historic park system and ensure its sustainability into the future,” Escareño said. “The Chicago Park District has begun a brighter new chapter…while emphasizing the value of open green spaces for families to play, exercise, relax and learn.”

In the wake of the big resignation spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, the Park District has struggled to hire the staff members needed to operate park facilities and run vital youth programs.

The problem came to a head over the summer when the district couldn’t hire or retain enough lifeguards to open all of its 49 outdoor pools and 28 indoor pools. Despite the shortage, the district managed to keep 37 public pools and most beaches open, Escareño said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The pool sits empty at Douglass Park in North Lawndale ahead of the opening of the Chicago Park District’s outdoor pools, as seen on June 3, 2022.

The Park District will preempt nationwide labor shortages next year by introducing a benefits package to attract and retain staff, Escareño said. $178 million investment in wages and benefits will create the district’s first eight-week parental leave program, enable flexible and hybrid work schedules for employees, and launch a workforce development program leadership and customer service focused on equity, inclusion and community engagement, Escareño said.

“Parks are places where many Chicagoans, especially our young people, find their first job,” Escareño said. “Our goal is to attract talent and attract people to run our programs. We are very confident for the 2023 programs.”

Despite recent challenges, staffing levels are over 80% for fall programs, Escareño said.

An additional $70 million in capital projects in the budget will bring free wifi to 60 city parks “to strengthen connectivity in the south and west sides, and especially where wifi is lacking in those areas,” it said. said the director.

The district will also invest in 50 new pickleball courts next year, five new natural playgrounds and a host of new natural restoration areas at Athletic Field Park, Warren Park, Big Marsh Park and Gompers Park, among others.

Next year’s budget increases program spending to $131 million, which will allow the Park District to create and staff a dedicated teen unit that will strengthen and coordinate opportunities for youth, Escareño said.

This division will be headed by a director who will consolidate all teen programs under one roof and streamline offerings to meet the needs of families, especially those on the south and west sides, Escareño said.

The Teen Unit “will help us improve our offerings and be more thoughtful about how we approach our young people and develop our future leaders,” Escareño said.

The new structure will give a boost to initiatives such as the Culture in My Neighborhood program, Escareño said.

The $40 million partnership with the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events aims to transform the parks’ cultural hubs into hubs of art and creativity. The initiative will improve theater, music, dance and visual arts capacities in cultural centers, Escareño said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The Garfield Park Dome and Lagoon in Garfield Park on November 22, 2021.

Dedicated staff will assess all teen programs and then identify those most in demand, especially in historically underserved communities. The district has already identified gymnastics as a priority program and has committed to adding three gymnastics instructors to expand programs in Englewood, Grand Boulevard and Woodlawn, Escareño said.

Violence prevention efforts will benefit from the restructuring by ensuring that parks can be a respite for the most vulnerable young people and a place where they can find activities, services, jobs and leadership development opportunities, a said Escareño.

“It’s important for us and for violence reduction to continue to create safe havens for children and for us to view our adolescent programs universally,” Escareño said.

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