Playing Smart: Getting Started on Joint Use Agreements

The City of Niagara Falls was “spending a lot of money to maintain marginal courts where people didn’t want them anyway, and we were getting complaints from neighbors who lived nearby.” “We wanted to use all of that money to create one large-scale park with actual programming. It led to a much more elegant solution that let us do more things than anybody thought we’d get. – Thomas Desantis, Playing Smart, Maximizing the Potential of School and Community Property Through Joint Use Agreements

Imagine you live in a community full of children, adults and seniors who are all seeking ways to remain physically active and take advantage of all the resources the community offers. This same community is host to a variety of playgrounds and recreational facilities that meet these needs, most within a short distance from your home. Sounds great, right? Now imagine that while all of these amazing facilities exist, they have now been closed to the public after school hours and on weekends. For many communities this is not something they have to imagine … it is their reality!

In the midst of an unstable economy, many communities are beginning to recognize what a select number of cities have known for decades: joint use agreements work. A joint use agreement is defined as “a formal agreement between two separate government entities, often a school district and a city or county, setting forth the terms and conditions for shared use of public property.” (1)

Joint use agreements have emerged as a promising practice because they not only address the concerns that typically keep recreational facilities locked during off hours, but they serve to strengthen and provide additional resources to the community. Often school grounds are closed to the public after hours due to concerns around liability, maintenance and security. Through the use of well designed joint use agreements, schools and cities agencies have been able to share these responsibilities and open facilities to the public. Having access to additional recreational facilities in the community provides many benefits. As playgrounds, gymnasiums, pools, courts and fields become more accessible it provides an opportunity for residents to engage in higher levels of physical activity, intergenerational play and—through the creation of community gathering spaces—social capital.

Through the use of joint use agreements, assets of city agencies, schools and the public are increased. In one example in 2001, the City of Lauderhill, Fla. and the school board entered into a joint use agreement to address the need for more afterschool activities and extracurricular programming for elementary school aged children. The schools are now used for football practice and summer camps, and the city facilities are used for school tennis, baseball and indoor activities. All fees are waved for both entities. The parks and leisure services department admits that the agreement has taken much of the “red tape out of the picture,” during discussions between the school board and parks and leisure services.

Florida’s Broward School Board initiated the joint use agreement and the two entities used separate legal counsels to negotiate the terms. The agreement evolved from the original lease agreements used between the city parks department and the school board starting around 1985, and it officially became the “Reciprocal Use Agreement” in 2006. Currently, the parks and leisure services director and city attorney interact with designated representatives from the superintendent’s office to negotiate the terms.

Maintenance responsibility is predetermined by both parties; at times the school will bill the Parks and Leisure Services department for clean up and repairs, but when possible the Parks and Recreation department will send its own maintenance staff to the school to reduce costs. Each agency provides its own insurance, which is specified in a separate clause in the agreement. Furthermore, there is an indemnity clause within the agreement. In lay speak; the city and the school board hold each other harmless from and against (loss, liability, etc.). 

The parks and leisure services department states that the process of reviewing and approving the agreement for this year lasted several months. The only reported challenge that has arisen with the joint use agreement is getting the complete understanding and cooperation of school principals in the process. However, with good communication and relationships between key stakeholders, the red tape and bureaucracy between both parties has significantly decreased. (2)

In another example the City of Kenner, La. recognized its need for indoor gym space, but it did not have any property on which to build new facilities. The city approached the school board about building facilities on the school board property that could then be used by both parties. Kenner currently has six joint use agreements in place--four gymnasiums and two fields/playgrounds. The city acknowledges that without this joint use agreement, it would have had to cut into existing park space in order to build the much-needed facilities.

The city took the initiative when officials received an increasingly large amount of community requests for indoor sports and activities. According to the agreement, the schools have priority use of the gyms during the school day, and the city has priority use from 3:30-10 p.m. on weekdays and all day on the weekends. When the agreement was initially set up, the parks and recreation department allowed a number of concessions because it needed the space for programs. Over time, however, the responsibility for equipment and staffing has been distributed more equally. Each of the entities became more comfortable with the other having keys to the buildings and having responsibility for possible incidents during use. 

In the event of an injury at one of the facilities, the entity using the facility at the time is held responsible. During the summer, the gym is open for free play and the liability falls on the parks and recreation department. If an injury or accident occurs due to negligent maintenance, the parks and recreation department would be held responsible. Additionally, third party use of the facilities is permitted through a rental policy. If an outside basketball league would like to rent a gym, they can sign a lease to do so after school hours. The third party must get a third party certificate verifying that they are carrying insurance.

The parks and recreation department is responsible for most maintenance costs, but shares the costs for equipment and staffing. If a facility needs a new basketball hoop, the two entities will split the cost because it is something that both will use.

The parks and recreation staff has seen a tremendous growth in their program numbers. They admit that if the city didn’t have these agreements in place, it wouldn’t be able to handle the growing number of children participating in programming. Kenner is a unique city because of its diverse demographics, and there are children who would not be able to access play spaces if these agreements weren’t in place. While the plan was initiated with the construction of the facilities in the 1980’s, the agreements have changed over time. At this time, almost all of the joint use agreements are 99 year agreements. (2)

Due to the successes of communities that have implemented joint use as well as the need held by many other communities, KaBOOM! and the National Policy and Legal Analysis Network (NPLAN) (3) have partnered to produce a national toolkit on joint use. Playing Smart: Maximizing the Potential of school and Community Property Through Joint Use Agreements, released in March of 2012, shares what we have learned from successful agreements, offering guidelines and templates for other communities looking to expand their access to school recreational facilities. Playing Smart provides readers with case studies from communities across the U.S. and provides insight into negotiating financial, legal and relationship management issues that may arise during the establishment of a joint use agreement. It is our hope that many more cities will see the benefit of joint use and have the tools to successfully implement agreements that meet the needs of their communities.


1. KaBOOM!, National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity & Public Health Law and Policy (2012). Playing Smart: Maximizing the Potential of school and Community Property Through Joint Use Agreements
2. Cipriano, C. (2011) Increasing Community Resources through Joint Use. Unpublished manuscript. 
3. National Policy and Legal Analysis Network (NPLAN)


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