Crews started installing fences around Wichita elementary school playgrounds this week, and some neighbors aren’t having it.
“This is completely ridiculous,” said Monica Marks, who lives near Gammon Elementary School in northeast Wichita. “Everybody on this street is upset about this. Nobody wants it.”
Earlier this year, the Wichita school board voted unanimously to spend $231,000 to add fencing around 41 elementary school playgrounds, citing security concerns and costly repairs after two playground fires.
Terri Moses, director of safety services for the Wichita district, said her staff hoped to deter vandalism on school grounds and ward off items that could pose a danger to students, such as discarded syringes or drug paraphernalia.
Now the fencing is going up at some schools, potentially limiting access to playgrounds, soccer fields and green spaces from surrounding neighborhoods.
Marks, a community activist and Democratic candidate for the Kansas House, noticed crews erecting fence posts Monday along two sides of a field behind Gammon Elementary, near 32nd North and Woodlawn. Her house in Cottonwood Village backs up to the field, which she said is used frequently by soccer teams, families and neighborhood children.
That morning, she posted on Facebook in all capital letters: “259 IS BUILDING A FENCE BEHIND MY HOUSE RIGHT NOW CLOSING OFF THE PLAYGROUND!!”
She talked to the contracting crews, reached out to her school board representative, talked to neighbors, collected signatures and signed up to speak at the next board meeting July 23. She hopes to persuade board members to keep gates to the playground unlocked and accessible to the neighborhood during evenings and weekends.
“I realize I can’t do anything to stop the fence from going up. That’s paid for and done,” Marks said.
“But this neighborhood was built around that school” and the surrounding green space, she said. “We all bought our houses because of this.... And all of us that have houses on the playground paid more for our houses because they’re on the playground.”
Ben Blankley, a Wichita school board member whose district includes Gammon Elementary, said he’s heard from at least 70 constituents from all areas of the district. The “overwhelming majority support keeping the playgrounds open outside school hours,” he said.
“I kind of anticipated that this was going to be an issue that people were going to be passionate about,” Blankley said. “And that’s definitely the case.”
District leaders voted to fence all elementary school playgrounds but so far haven’t discussed accessibility after school hours. The board could consider leaving some playgrounds and green spaces open, particularly in areas where there isn’t a public park within walking distance.
But that would require manpower — someone to unlock gates and sweep playgrounds for garbage — and a plan that’s fair to everyone in the district, Blankley said.
“Anything that’s going to cost more money is going to be tough,” he said. “We’ve got to be concerned with the safety of the kids during the school day as our primary focus. . . . So this is just part of that balancing act that we’ve got to meet.”
Marks said she hopes the district won’t lock up school playgrounds for good. The area behind her house has two soccer goals and about five acres of wide open, grassy space where people kick balls around, walk dogs and throw Frisbees, she said. Children and families from a nearby apartment complex often use the playground on weekends and during school breaks, she said. All five acres are being closed off by a chain-link fence.
“It’s too late to get this fence down,” Marks said. “But if they lock it, I’m just going to be sick.”