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Thursday, Apr 24, 2014

Pinellas schools might open their playgrounds after-hours

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Long after the school day ends, James Gilchrist often plays basketball with his best friend, Jamie Barnett, on Mount Vernon Elementary School’s playground in St. Petersburg.

It has been an almost-daily routine for the 11-year-old boys for as long as James can remember and one that Pinellas County officials hope soon will be replicated on more school playgrounds after hours.

“It’s pretty cool that they keep their playground open; we can skateboard or play on the monkey bars,” James said. “I go to Northwest Elementary, and they always lock up the gate, so you have to climb over it or something to get on the playground after school.”

A proposal to open more or perhaps all Pinellas County school playgrounds after classes end each day came up at a meeting of elected school officials, Juvenile Welfare Board members and county commissioners last week. While matters such as operational costs and liability must be resolved, Pinellas commission Chairman Ken Welch said the idea will become a county priority.

Pinellas County Schools operates six joint-use playgrounds with the City of St. Petersburg – playgrounds that were built by both and remain open after the school day ends. St. Petersburg pays operational costs for the playgrounds, said Sherry McBee, the city’s director of Parks and Recreation. In return, people in the community get a safe place to play.

“Our original goal was to have a playground within a half-mile walking distance of every child in the city without having to cross a major street, but we don’t have enough city land to fill in all those gaps,” McBee said. “So we identified schools that were in those areas and put new playgrounds on their property. They have an access gate to the outside that’s locked during school hours and then they have a gate that’s accessible through the school that’s locked after school hours.”

If the county decides to enter a similar agreement, it likely first would target elementary schools in unincorporated areas of Pinellas County, such as Gateway, Palm Harbor and Lealman, said Associate Superintendent of Operational Services Michael Bessette.

Parks primarily are funded by cities or municipalities, not the county, so residents in unincorporated areas sometimes don’t have access to them, County Administrator Robert LaSala said.

At least seven of the county’s 74 elementary schools are in unincorporated Pinellas.

Since the joint-use agreements were signed about five years ago, the City of St. Petersburg has paid for everything from maintenance to mulching on the six playgrounds, Bessette said. County officials are waiting for an estimate of that expense before deciding whether to propose similar agreements with the school system.

The city installed new playground equipment at each school, which usually costs about $80,000 per campus, McBee said. The cost was worth it, as the playgrounds remain busy after hours, she said.

“I really don’t know why we haven’t expanded this, I find it interesting,” Bessette said. “We haven’t been approached by any other municipalities, either, about doing this; … but I’m excited that the county wants to look at doing more. We’ve never had any issues. It’s safe. It’s right there by a school, and the school benefits also by having its use during the day.”

A key provision for the school district is that it’s not liable for any accidents that happen after-hours on its playgrounds, so long as the injuries aren’t because of faulty equipment or maintenance that was neglected. The city is responsible for other accidents that happen after school hours.

The only issues School board member Terry Krassner could think of was potential overuse and making sure people are aware the playgrounds are available.

“We do have a large number of after-school organizations, like the YMCA and R’Club, that use these playgrounds, too, so we’ll have to make sure they don’t have any issues with timing,” Krassner said.

School district officials, though, say they are open to making the idea happen.

“It’s a great idea, and anything we can do to partner with municipalities or governments, we’ll do,” he said. “We want our schools to be community focal points.”


adawson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-9851

Twitter: @adawsonTBO

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