WESTFIELD – Highland Elementary School students from kindergarten to fourth grade got a lesson in the benefits of civic engagement after pleading their case to the School Committee for a new playground on Monday.
Principal Mary Claire Manning showed photos of the existing playground’s broken asphalt and equipment, and the one they would like to build, before having the students explain why a new playground was important to them.
Third grader Jack Donnelly began by saying that the PTO, families and the entire community worked hard to raise money for the new playground. He was then followed by a dozen other students, who spoke about the importance of getting time outside to be happier and healthier; to keep from shutting down from sitting in class all day, and to have more energy.
Manning then introduced Rebecca Hart, the Highland parent who collaborated the effort between the staff, parents and community to raise money for the playground.
Hart said the project wasn’t without its setbacks. She said the first donation was made by her son Chase, who handed her $37.77 from his piggy bank, all of the money he had ever saved.
She said to date, they have raised $50,000 toward their goal through fundraisers, such as pocketbook bingo and a buy-a-brick campaign. Hart thanked Mayor Brian P. Sullivan for becoming a platinum sponsor for a brick in memory of his brother Kevin Sullivan. She also said Sen. Donald F. Humason Jr. and Rep. John Velis helped the school to secure a $15,000 grant towards their goal.
Hart said she couldn’t sugar-coat the large expense for the playground, which is anticipated to cost $95,751. She said the playground they want would allow for inclusive play as well as having some accessible equipment, and would last for 25 years.
“It’s the best plan, with the longest amount of longevity,” Hart said, adding that she wasn’t sure how much more they could raise from the community. She then asked the School Committee for a $40,000 commitment at the meeting to reach their goal, and be able to complete the playground over the summer for the fall school opening.
“I need a commitment tonight,” Hart said.
School Committee members asked Hart for details on the project. Diane Mayhew asked whether the price included removal of the asphalt, and Ramon Diaz asked whether installation was included, which Hart said it was for both.
Diaz asked whether they needed all of the money immediately, and Hart said the $50,000 could start the project, but they would have 90 days to pay the rest, which is why the commitment from the School Committee was needed. She also said playgrounds could not be built piecemeal.
“If we thought we could raise the rest, we certainly would. We are maxed out,” Hart said.
“Bravo to you for being able to do this. I do think it’s important when we build schools to build playgrounds. I am supporting this expenditure out of School Choice funds,” said Cindy Sullivan.
Mayor Sullivan credited Hart and the committee for raising $50,000. He also referred to a letter in support of the project from Councilor Andrew K. Surprise, read by Highland parent Angie LaMothe during public participation earlier in the meeting.
“Make sure you go to the City Council. You need to support the school district,” Mayor Sullivan said, adding that School Choice funds would have to be used to supplement any cuts that are made.
At that point, Manning brought back a students who had spoken earlier, and had something else to say. The student said the third and fourth graders supported the project even though they only had a couple of years left, because they were taught to care about other people, and cared about the younger children.
Bo Sullivan then made a motion to suspend the order of the agenda, and move the motion to fund the playground from School Choice as the next order of business.
School Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski said he had been meeting with Hart and Manning, who said they really needed $45,000 for the playground. He said he had also spoken to Chief Financial Officer Ronald R. Rix, who supported funding the project out of School Choice.
A motion was then made to use the funds, not to exceed $45,000 for the Highland School playground. Diaz said while he supported the project, he was worried about using School Choice funds, and asked whether it could come from any other part of the budget. Czaporowski said they would try to find other sources as well.
Cindy Sullivan said they don’t expend School Choice funds often, and the last time was for refurbishing the ropes course at Westfield High School. A vote was then taken and passed unanimously, to applause from students, parents and teachers in the City Council chambers.