With budget surplus, Ridgefield schools aim to make playgrounds an ‘inclusive environment’

RIDGEFIELD — Anticipating a budget surplus at the end of the fiscal year, the education board hopes to use that money to make the school playgrounds more accessible.

The school board has requested to the Board of Finance that a non-lapsing fund be created for playground enhancements. What schools would see the work is still being determined, but the idea is that the projects would make the playgrounds accessible to all students.

“We’re not just looking to the standard of the law,” Elizabeth Hannaway, assistant superintendent of special services, told school board members at last Monday’s meeting. “We’re looking to create an inclusive environment, but until we can fully get to that point we’re at least improving to get to the standard of law.”

School board members unanimously supported the request, which the finance board is expected to consider at a June meeting.

Exactly how much money will be leftover in the budget is unclear, but the district expects savings due to a “one-time adjustment in insurance,” Superintendent Susie Da Silva said.

The town is responsible for upgrade the school playgrounds, and school and municipal officials have been collaborating for almost a year on identifying priorities for potential upgrades, she said.

“In some cases, some are fine right now but certainly need to be on a cycle for updates at some point,” she said. “So we prioritized that — sometimes that’s just based on the condition of the playground, that could be based on accessibility. It also could have been on the dynamics of the schools.”

Some schools have programs with students with physical disabilities who “need to be able to access their program and that includes our facilities,” Da Silva said.

“But all playgrounds aren’t created equal — the fencing that some need, the prep work that others need,” she said. “What we really thought was important was we have a memorialized plan of what will be the priorities based on what we know about our kids our schools and accessibility.”

The proposed fund wouldn’t be able to cover the full cost of projects, so Ridgefield would look to combine fundraising dollars and town funds to complete the work, she said.

“We know that the amount of money is not going to cover the needs, but at least it's a start, right?” she said. “And then between us, between the town, whoever, then perhaps we can be thinking about how this might go into capital and create some type of cycle. What I do know is that this will help, and I'm hopeful that the Board of Finance will believe this will be helpful.”

Da Silva said “generous” Parent Teacher Associations have traditionally raised money for upgrades to playgrounds. Some of those projects are close to funded but the town is still needed to do the preparation work and cover surfacing costs. It’s possible that those projects could be completed as part of this effort, even if they’re technically lower on the priority list, she said.

“But in any event, whether it’s the PTA, the town, whoever is paying for it, we are looking at those plans, so we are ensuring that whatever plan is going to be at our schools that it’s going to be accessible for the children that we need it to be accessible for, bottom line,” Da Silva said.