Mulvane parents decry public use of new fitness facilities during school hours

04/24/2014 1:40 PM

08/06/2014 11:08 AM

Some parents upset over public access to Mulvane Grade School’s new indoor track and fitness studios during school hours urged the Mulvane school board on Thursday to stop letting anyone but staff and students into the gym while school is in session.

“We’re just asking that it (the building) not be utilitized by anyone but school staff and students during school hours” to avoid “putting any extra risk to our kids,” Steve Cross Jr., whose son attends the school, told a few hundred people gathered in the new gym for a special meeting held Thursday to discuss the issue.

Another father, Jeff Parker, agreed.

“This is 2014. This is post-Columbine. This is post Sandy Hook. ... These are our children,” he said. “Their safety is No. 1. When my wife drops her (our daughter) off in the morning, we are putting trust in you guys that she will be safe when she’s here.”

The seniors who use the track, meanwhile, say there is no problem and want the building to remain open.

“I don’t feel like my granddaughter is in danger because I don’t feel like it’s our senior citizens who are up there watching our kids,” Shirley Knuth told school board members and the crowd.

She suggested installing cameras or screens to block the walkers’ view of the children to help ease parents’ worries.

“If parents are concerned about us watching their children,” she said, “then there ought to be some other way to do it besides kicking us out.”

The new walking track and fitness studios at the school, completed last month as part of a bond issue approved by voters in 2012, are leased by the Mulvane Recreation Commission. The facilities, at 441 SE Louis Drive in Mulvane, have separate entrances staffed by recreation commission employees, and members do not have access to the gymnasium or other parts of the school during the school day.

Only senior citizens – people 55 and older – can use the elevated walking track, which overlooks the gymnasium, during school hours.

Forty-one seniors have used the facility through Tuesday, MRC director Tricia Human told the crowd during Thursday’s meeting. There are on average 17 walkers a day, she said. Their average age is 77.

Others attend fitness classes held during school hours. Their average ages generally were in the 60s, Human said.

In an interview with The Eagle before Thursday’s meeting, Tom Keil, director of communication for the Mulvane district, said he felt the arrangement is “a safe situation.”

“With the nature of the times that we live in, we do need to be aware of who is entering our buildings, regardless of whether that’s visitors, parents, grandparents or senior citizens,” he said. But the track and studios are “separate and secure.”

The two studios, which have exercise equipment and space for fitness classes, double as the school’s storm shelter. They hold 520 people, Keil said; Mulvane Grade School has about 400 students and staff members.

But Monica Cross said that she and many other parents didn’t know the track and work-out rooms would be used by the public during the school day until the facility was completed last month. An announcement inviting the public to an open house said senior citizens would be allowed on the walking track from 7:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

“We have an extremely huge safety concern,” said Cross, a parent of three elementary-age children in Mulvane.

“Parents were told it would be used (by the public) during non-school hours” only, Cross said. “I just feel like we were completely lied to.”

Cross said information given to parents during the bond campaign seemed to imply the public would have access to the gymnasium and other facilities only during non-school hours.

The ballot question in May 2012 did not note any lease agreement with the Mulvane Recreation Commission. According to the ballot, the district proposed to “construct, equip and furnish a new educational facility to be connected by corridor to the existing Mulvane Grade School facility to create a gymnasium, classroom areas to also double as storm shelter areas, an indoor walking track, restrooms and other support facilities.”

Keil, however, said nearly a year of discussions and meetings leading up to the $13.4 million bond issue vote made clear that the grade school gym, track and fitness studios would be a “shared facility.”

“I think the committee members would tell you that from the beginning it was communicated that it would be a multi-use facility,” he said.

A slide show presentation about the bond in 2012 noted that the district planned to “collaborate with Mulvane Recreation Center to share gym/walking track” at the grade school, though it did not specify before, during or after school.

Cross said she and other parents who have voiced concerns have no problem with senior citizens or others using the track before or after school. But allowing any public access during the school day puts children at risk, she said.

“They’re saying it’s fine, it’s not a big deal. But we feel like they already have a concern if they’re limiting the use to senior citizens,” Cross said.

“There could be pedophiles, sexual predators, shooters – I mean, look at Sandy Hook,” she said, referring to a mass shooting at a school in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012.

That incident prompted many public school districts, including Wichita, to re-evaluate crisis plans and upgrade security in school buildings. In November, the Wichita school board voted to close a public library branch inside Colvin Elementary School, citing security concerns.

Unlike the walking track and fitness centers at Mulvane Grade School, however, the Colvin library did not have a separate, controlled-access entrance. Wichita district officials said it posed a security risk because patrons couldn’t be adequately monitored once they passed through a front-office checkpoint.

Cross said she hopes board members will reconsider their lease agreement with the recreation commission and allow access to the new facilities only during non-school hours.

“We aren’t trying to divide this community. It’s about the safety of our children,” she said. “We do not live in the 1920s. This is not Mayberry.”

Some attending Thursday’s special meeting, however, say the school board should honor the agreement and let the seniors continue using the studios and track.

“You contracted with the senior citizens of Mulvane – believe it or not, it was a contract – that we could use this facility,” Bill Crane, a Mulvane resident since 1972, told the school board Thursday night.

“There was a contract, an agreement, with the entire city of Mulvane that this is a multi-use facility.”

Steve Fry, the Mulvane school board president, said after Thursday’s special meeting that the board would discuss concerns at their next meeting Monday. The discussion will take place in executive session because it relates to matters of school security, he said.

Fry said he expected a decision within a few weeks on whether to continue allowing seniors to use the track during school hours.

In the meantime, he said, “seniors will continue to use the track.”

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