Playground closings bare larger issue
Schools rely on parents to raise funds for upkeep
The recent closing of two elementary school playgrounds for safety reasons has exasperated parents and exposed a bigger problem in Belmont - chronic underfunding that leaves schools unable to maintain play equipment without hefty parental involvement, local officials and residents say.
Superintendent Thomas Kingston closed the playground at the Daniel Butler Elementary School, and the town’s Recreation Department closed the playground near Winn Brook Elementary School on Nov. 3 after an inspection found that their equipment was breaking down.
The playground at Winn Brook was built largely with parents’ donations, according to officials, but since it’s on town property, it has been maintained by the Department of Public Works. The playground at Butler is on school property, and has been maintained by a combination of school district and Parent-Teacher Association funds.
As the days without playgrounds stretch on for neighborhood children, parents are asking where the money will come from to repair and reopen - or raze and rebuild - the play areas.
“Where’s the outrage? Why do we need to carry all the burden?’’ asked Azra Nelson, parent of a Butler second-grader, during a PTA meeting Tuesday night.
School and town officials are waiting for a second report to determine what needs to be done to fix both playgrounds, and how much that will cost. The report is expected within the next few weeks.
There is no money in either the school district’s or the town’s budget to pay for major repairs, according to School Committee chairwoman Laurie Graham and Ralph Jones, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.
“We want to come up with a solution where that money is not solely on PTOs and PTAs,’’ said Graham. But, she said, “if money is not in either the town or the school budget, it’s going to have to come from something.’’
Both playgrounds are about 20 years old, she said. At Butler, especially, parental involvement had been key to keeping the playground open.
“Over the last at least 10 or 15 years, most money that’s come to pay for maintenance, upkeep, enhancement of playgrounds has been coming from outside of the school operating budget,’’ Graham said.
It’s not a tenable arrangement, according to parents and town and school officials.
“Relying on parents for such a basic public safety function is sort of like asking each town precinct to provide its own police. It just doesn’t make sense,’’ said Jones.
“One of the most basic responsibilities of government is public safety, and we should be doing that,’’ he said.
Budget constraints over the years have pushed the responsibility of taking care of playgrounds onto the parent-teacher groups at the schools, said Jones, and the result is unevenly maintained structures.
Butler Elementary’s principal, Michael McAllister, said maintenance of his school’s playground has been mostly reactive - fixing what breaks instead of maintaining what works - and paid for by a patchwork of funds provided by the PTA, the Butler Extended Day child care program, and the school district.
“When something broke down, we then fixed it,’’ said McAllister. “And we just sort of waited for it to break down.’’
Kingston, the school district’s superintendent, brought in an engineer to inspect the playgrounds at Winn Brook and Butler after parents raised safety concerns.
The engineer found that equipment at both playgrounds posed entrapment risks, areas where children could become stuck. Both also were out of compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
At Winn Brook, some play structures were missing or broken. Exposed nails, rusting chains, and broken wood were all issues cited by the inspector.
Peter Castanino, director of the Department of Public Works, said he is looking at past maintenance done by his department. He had not had a chance to go over the results of the inspection in depth, he said.
Several years ago, Castanino said, the DPW did a major overhaul of the Winn Brook playground, removing some old wood and replacing it with Trex, a composite product that doesn’t splinter. Workers also removed nonfunctional equipment, he said.
He said his workers inspect the park every month, and once a year they seal all the wood to keep it from splintering.
Castanino said he didn’t think that there had been any lapse by his department that led to the park’s deterioration, but he was still investigating.
He said the DPW has money in its budget for minor repairs to the playground, but not major ones.
At Butler, the surface material of pea stone was worn and compacted, and not safe for children to land on if they fell, according to the inspector, who stated, “Current protection is next to nothing.’’ The engineer also found deteriorated wood and missing equipment, and suggested removal of the swings.
Graham said there had been no reports of any children being injured on playground equipment at either school, outside of the usual bumps and bruises.
Kingston said it was premature to talk about costs before the second report comes back.
“At this point there’s no budgeted money for repair or replacement,’’ he said.
The long-term solution, said Jones, the Board of Selectmen chairman, is to create a new town department that will oversee all public facilities, town and school. That way, maintenance would be standardized, and tight budgets wouldn’t push it to the sidelines.
“By segregating money out into a single account and making sure it’s always spent for maintenance, we can make sure that all the maintenance is done,’’ said Jones.
The new department was already in the works when the decisions to close the Winn Brook and Butler playgrounds were made, said Jones, and it will likely be included in the budget for next fiscal year. But, he said, funds won’t be available until July 2013.
“It may not address the current issue of playgrounds as quickly as people would want,’’ said Jones.
For now, a chain-link fence encircles the Butler playground, and yellow caution tape warns children out of Winn Brook. And all parents and officials can do is wait for the second report to tell them how expensive repairs will be.
“We don’t know what the remedies are yet, and we don’t know how they’re going to be funded yet,’’ said Ellen Schreiber, copresident of the Winn Brook PTA. “We all recognize that we have a serious situation, and so I don’t think there is an answer at the moment.’’
At Tuesday’s meeting, Butler PTA members discussed cutting about $5,000 from the group’s budget, taking an additional $10,000 out of its rainy-day fund, and raising another $5,000 from parents to round up $20,000 to put toward fixing the playground.
Butler parent Patrick Whittemore has started a website called “Please Help Save the Butler Playground’’ (www.savethebutlerplayground.com) to try to get people involved with the effort to get the playground back up and running.
“I think it’s completely unacceptable that there is a situation like this in a town like Belmont,’’ he said.
The town, he said, should be putting up money. But for now, he and other Butler parents are preparing to open their wallets again.
“I’m going to put my energy into focusing on raising money for the playground,’’ Whittemore said. “That’s what’s going to have to happen, I guess.’’
Evan Allen can be reached at email@example.com.