Starting soon, all Wichita elementary school playgrounds could be off-limits to the public.
Citing security concerns and costly repairs after two recent playground fires, Wichita school leaders approved a plan to fence off all elementary school playgrounds by the end of the year.
The $231,000 plan will add fencing to 41 elementary schools that currently are accessible to the public after school, on weekends and during holiday breaks.
Terri Moses, director of safety services for the Wichita district, said her staff hopes to deter vandalism on school grounds and ward off items that could pose a danger to students, such as discarded syringes or drug paraphernalia.
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"People get on our playgrounds, and people sometimes do unfortunate things on our playgrounds," Moses said. "Not only does it cost us a lot of money, but it also is a safety issue. ... So we think that (additional fencing) is a very important tool."
In January 2017, after an intentionally-set fire caused about $20,000 damage to playground equipment at Adams Elementary School, near Ninth and Oliver, district officials announced that the playground would no longer be open for public use.
Last summer, another fire destroyed playground equipment at Enders Elementary School, near 31st Street South and Seneca. That incident cost the district about $150,000.
Children and families who live near school playgrounds often use them during off-hours. Many playgrounds feature basketball courts, makeshift soccer fields, swing sets and play equipment designed for young children.
In a presentation to school board members Monday, Moses did not specify whether all playgrounds would be off-limits to the public at all times, such as during summer breaks.
"There is a need for adding fences to help keep playgrounds secure," district spokeswoman Susan Arensman said in an email. "But there hasn't been a final decision regarding accessibility."
Board member Stan Reeser said board members will have to weigh issues of security and public access.
"But we've been advised that we need to make some of our playgrounds a lot less accessible, and unfortunately that's the kind of world we live in right now," Reeser said.
When the district opted to restrict public access to the Adams Elementary playground last year, principal Terry Manning called the move "disappointing" for children in the high-poverty area around Adams.
"We want our kids to have access to it because we're talking about a bunch of kids that don't have a lot to play with around here," Manning said at the time. "But now it's to the point where we're going to have to lock it up every night."
Reeser, who lives in southwest Wichita, regularly takes his grandchildren to a playground at Woodman Elementary on weekends. If that playground is fenced off, he said, they'd likely go to a nearby neighborhood park.
Before all the new fences go up, Reeser said, he'd like board members to "have an open discussion" about accessibility. The board could consider leaving some school playgrounds open, particularly in areas where there isn't a public park within walking distance, he said.
"I think we do want to be good neighbors, and we are trying to balance the fact that there probably are some neighborhoods and some schools that really need each other," he said.
Board president Mike Rodee said the board hasn't decided anything yet, but he favors closing school playgrounds to the public to protect students, preserve costly equipment and reduce the district's liability.
Keeping playgrounds open late or on weekends would require employees to lock and reopen them, and the district doesn't have the manpower, he said.
"Do we want to close the playgrounds down? No," Rodee said. "We would love for everybody to enjoy everything we have and take care of everything and not have any problems. But that's not the society that we live in today.
"The answer is, we've got to protect our kids — bottom line, first priority, that's absolutely the most important thing."