Old Schools Wait In Line For New Playground Items

October 10, 1990|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff writer

The 775 students at Laurel Woods Elementary School share a few pieces of faded 17-year-old metal playground equipment whose design can be hazardous to young children.

One second-grader fell off the horizontal bars last month and landed on her back, although she was not seriously injured.

"The bars are too far apart for small hands," said Principal John K.


The 620 students at the new Waverly Elementary School can play on two brightly painted metal units that include slides, horizontal bars, a hanging bridge, rings and a cargo net.

Playground equipment at Laurel Woods and Waverly illustrates the gap between newer "have" schools and older "have not" schools, a gap that the school board may begin to address in the 1991-1992 operating budget.

"It's clearly an equity issue," Vermette said.

The school board in the mid and late 1980s passed the buck to local PTAs, leaving them with what Rosemary E.S. Mortimer, president of the PTA Council of Howard County, called a Catch-22.

"I would prefer to see them go to the board and jump up and down and say, 'We want it (playground equipment) as a line item in the budget. The new schools get it, why can't we have it?' " Mortimer said.

The catch is that lobbying the board can take several years, while the need for new playground equipment is usually immediate, she noted.

Sydney L. Cousin, associate superintendent for finance and operations, promised in the wake of earlier lobbying efforts by local PTAS to insert a $60,000 request for playground equipment into the 1991-1992 operating budget proposal.

If the allocation is approved by the school board and County Council, Cousin said the money will be used toward a basic play unit for each school and to replace unsafe equipment.

The Laurel Woods PTA tried lobbying the school board to replace its equipment, but decided to raise the money itself after receiving a discouraging letter from Board Chairman Karen B. Campbell, PTA President Kate Billman said.

Dr. Campbell cautioned that Laurel Woods would have to wait its turn with other schools in the priority listing for a share of the money.

Billman quoted part of the letter in which Dr. Campbell told the PTA, "My opinion is that the usefulness of playground equipment during the day has been highly overrated." Campbell added that she would prefer to see students given more jump ropes, balls and similar inexpensive equipment instead.

"That letter didn't go over too well," Billman said. "Playground equipment is one of our top priorities."

She said the PTA has $10,000 from the last school year and hopes to raise an additional $10,000 this year to cover the cost of a $14,000 system of slides and crawling areas, plus $6,000 for installation.

Two complete sets of playground equipment -- 10 units ranging from slides to climbing bars -- cost approximately $30,000, plus up to $20,000 for installation, said Paul B. Bell, purchasing officer for the county school system.

The sets are sized differently for children in kindergarten through grade two and those in grades three through five, he said. A 4-by-4-foot platform costs about $1,000; a tube slide, $1,200; climbing attachment, $950 and tire climber, $450.

Some PTA representatives have voiced concerns about being limited to one source for play equipment, but Bell said school officials have recently established working relationships with four dealers who also install equipment to meet school system safety specifications.

Playground equipment gets regular inspections by school system maintenance workers four times a year, according to Paul D. O'Meara, maintenance supervisor. Any equipment judged dangerous is removed.

But that solution leads to another problem.

"When it's worn out, they rip it out. They just don't replace it with anything," said Barbara Russell, 1989-1990 president of the Longfellow Elementary School PTA.

Until five to 10 years ago, playground equipment that became obsolete or dangerous "tended to be replaced, out of what fund I don't know," said Edward E. Alexander, director of elementary schools.

Alexander said PTA involvement is a relatively recent phenomenon. He recalled that it began seven to eight years ago when West Friendship Elementary School PTA raised money for playground equipment "and from there, it has tended to mushroom."

Playground equipment replacement became an issue about two or three years ago, recalled Janis S. Chastant, 1988-1990 president of the PTA council. As new schools opened with new playground equipment, PTAs at older schools began to seek replacements for aging equipment, she said.

"The council tried to encourage them to lobby for it, not to raise money for it," Chastant said.

Longfellow Elementary School tried lobbying. Russell said she testified at school board hearings for playground equipment replacement as a budget item both for Longfellow and other schools where dangerous or outdated equipment had been removed but not replaced.

"We have a nice big slide. It's not for young children," Russell said.

Longfellow is one of the few schools in the county built without a kindergarten wing, so all the play equipment was scaled for older children, she said. The school has 49 kindergarteners this fall, plus youngsters in primary grades who use the playground.

Mortimer, now president of the PTA council, has seen both sides of the issue.

She said she supports lobbying for the school board to take the responsibility, but she was president of the Clemens Crossing Elementary School PTA for two of the three years when the association raised money to replace playground equipment.

Fund-raisers for playground equipment have ranged from a November 1989 "marathon" in which Bushy Park Elementary School children received pledges for staying in constant motion for an hour to the annual sale of Cherry Dale Farms wrapping paper, candies and tins at Laurel Woods Elementary School.

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