Although parents worked with the Fairfax County Public Schools facilities department, purchased the equipment, hired a contractor and had the playground ready for recess, the school system suddenly deemed the play equipment too dangerous. Since Nov. 30 it has been off-limits, parents say.
Never mind that the same equipment is installed at more than 1,200 parks and schools across the country, including a public park in the county.
“We have $35,000 wrapped up in caution tape,” said Eleanor Whitaker, mother of second- and sixth-graders at Stratford Landing, in the Alexandria section of Fairfax, near Mount Vernon.
What began as an effort to make recess more enjoyable for kids quickly evolved into a feud between parents and school officials.
Parents say the kids just want to have fun. Officials say the school system wants to avoid potential lawsuits should a child be injured on the equipment. According to statistics from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 200,000 children visit emergency rooms annually after playground accidents.
The facilities department says the new equipment must go. But to make amends, Fairfax is offering to revamp the Stratford Landing playground, using about $135,000 from the county’s coffers.
“Funding a new playground is costing taxpayer money,” Whitaker said. “It would be a tremendous waste of money to pull the equipment out.”
Stratford Landing’s principal did not return calls seeking comment. County school officials said the equipment doesn’t meet strict requirements.
“Unfortunately, the playground equipment purchased by the PTA does not meet FCPS safety standards,” school system spokesman John Torre said. “We are currently working with school officials to consider options to upgrade and renovate the entire school playground.”
The project started last year before summer break. The PTA — having raised funds to expand the playground for a school that had grown to 870 students — asked for guidance from Fairfax’s facilities department. The PTA says the county provided the parents with literature about school playground construction procedures and catalogues from approved vendors.
With input from students, the PTA bought a climbing obstacle developed by Landscape Structures, a Minnesota-based playground equipment manufacturer. The group chose the popular Evos system, with arching spans of tubes that more closely resemble a modernist sculpture than the wooden platform playground equipment of yore.
The PTA then hired Isaac Sparks, a construction manager for Sparks @ Play, a playgrounds specialist based in Owings Mills, Md., to install the structure. By early November, the students were romping all over it.