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McAllen ISD board approves schoolyard forests agreement with city, Quinta

After some pointed questions for Quinta Mazatlan Executive Director Colleen Hook, the McAllen Independent School District Board of Trustees approved Monday an interlocal agreement with the city and Quinta that could pave the way for $2.7 million worth of trees coming the district’s way.

That money would come from a Texas A&M Forest Service grant that would pay for tree planting at seven city-school parks aimed at bringing tree coverage spread over those elementary school campuses to 30%.

Basically, the idea is that planting native trees at schools and parks results in ecological advantages while reducing the temperature at those locations and making them more functional for students and residents.

Quinta and the district used Cathey Middle School for the same thing last year.

It is perhaps an awkward time for the district and Quinta to be partnering up again.

The board voted two weeks ago to attempt to renegotiate $3.4 million in commitments to Quinta’s Center for Urban Ecology and an expansion project at the International Museum of Arts & Sciences.

The board directed legal counsel to proceed as directed after closed door discussion Monday, and it’s not clear where those talks stand.

Quinta’s “Tiny Forest” tree initiative, in fact, falls under the umbrella of its Center for Urban Ecology plan.

“This was designed sort of as a continuation for the Center for Urban Ecology. And the Center for Urban Ecology was never meant to be one campus, I mean our goal was to get a Center for Urban Ecology at every campus…” Hook said Monday. “So this is an extension of something that the school has already approved. It just provides more opportunity and it provides an opportunity on-campus for more children to attend.”

The board was generally enthusiastic about the project, though Hook faced concern from some trustees about how much of its campus space the trees will use up, the role of an outside entity in education, and about potential expenses associated with the project.

“My fear is that we will receive this money, we will invest in these little forests, and then a year or two down the road they’re not sustainable and we end up letting them go,” Trustee Sofia Peña said. “Hopefully not — I love the fact that it’s trees and greenery and green space — but we also need playgrounds too. We need to upgrade all of our playgrounds as well.”

Hook described the grant — which the city intended to apply for by Friday — as essentially, all upside for the district.

“So the tiny forests are designed to be minimum long term maintenance,” Hook said. “You can water every first couple of years and then you let nature take over. These are not intensive butterfly gardens, pollinator gardens — which take a significant amount of labor.”

Superintendent René Gutiérrez largely echoed that sentiment.

“What I like about partnerships about this is that we’re investing in our property, and not somewhere else,” he said. “It’s on our property. We’re beautifying our schools, and our kids are learning a lot about nature, a lot about our surrounding areas. And this grant is gonna provide those opportunities.”

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