For as long as anyone can remember, Knox County’s elementary schools have been responsible for buying and maintaining their own playground equipment. For some schools, this is not a big deal. For others, it is a heavy burden.

Clearly, not all playgrounds are created equal.

“You can see where that creates a problem,” said Patti Bounds, who visited schools across Knox County on a listening tour after she was elected board chair last year.

“Not so much for schools that have foundations and sell hundreds of coupon books a year, but playgrounds came up in the conversations more than once when principals were expressing concerns. (Schools) fight for every dollar they have.”

Knox County Schools Chief Operating Officer Russ Oaks said schools have been responsible for their own playgrounds for longer than the 16 years he’s worked for the system.

“The only thing our maintenance department does is replace things like nuts and bolts or swing chains, very minor kinds of things,” Oaks said. “The schools provide things like replacement parts and ground cover.”

Safety engineer Adam Parson makes the rounds of playgrounds and shares the results of his inspections with principals, who are expected to take action.

The problem smacked Bounds between the eyes last fall when the playground at Powell Elementary, which is in her district, was shut down after its mulch was ruled to be too compacted. The PTA and school mobilized to raise money to fix the problem.

Playground mulch, which is required for “fall zones” around play equipment, is more durable and more expensive than standard garden mulch. Wood fiber playground mulch costs $1,600 per truckload, Oaks said.

The issue came up at the school board’s June workshop meeting when Eighth District board member Mike McMillan questioned a $23,000 bill for mulch removal and replacement. First District representative Gloria Deathridge complained that state law requires schools to provide physical activities for children but leaves the individual schools to foot the playground bill. She cited problems at Lonsdale Elementary School as an example.

“You have small schools this week that don’t have the money (to maintain playgrounds) – schools can’t even use the playground,” Deathridge said.

Oaks said Lonsdale had a mulch problem because its contractors underestimated the amount that would be needed. Knox County Schools was able to fix the problem at no expense to the school by using rubber mulch that had been replaced with wood fiber mulch at Farragut Primary School.

Playground issues have been compounded by the relatively new security fences popping up at various schools. Communities that build them expect to have after-school access to school playgrounds and that’s not always the case. Expect to hear more on this one.

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Written by Betty Bean