CHAMPAIGN — Work a job. Raise children. Join the PTA. Then, find the time to raise up to $100,000 for a new school playground.
It's a familiar routine to many in the Champaign school district: Members of parent-teacher associations in Unit 4 have long been the catalyst of fundraising that replaced aging or outdated playgrounds at schools across the district, including Kenwood, Bottenfield, Westview and now Robeson Elementary.
But some parents wonder if this is how it should be — if it ought to be their responsibility to raise the majority of the money needed and if it should really take years for things to improve while children cycle in and out of the school.
A petition signed by Robeson families argues that it's not.
To be presented during public comment at tonight's school board meeting, the petition denotes frustrations with Robeson's facilities and the efforts parents have taken thus far to improve the situation for their children and school staff.
Unique to Robeson's plight are long-term drainage issues in the grounds where children play — creating standing water, deep mud and icy conditions in the winter — and unsafe playground components cordoned off. While the Robeson PTA has followed the lead of others by raising money for replacement facilities — around $37,000 so far — members say the district has yet to address the drainage issues that lead to canceled outdoor recesses or provide a timeline as to when Unit 4 will do so.
"... we find it unacceptable that the district seems content to wait on community members to raise enough money for replacement equipment before they act to address this issue," the petition reads in part. "The loss of outdoor recess time, coupled with the dangers of using the existing equipment and grounds, is detrimental to the Robeson students for whom Unit 4 is tasked with providing a safe school environment."
Members worry that by the time they're done fundraising, they'll be ready to install new facilities and the district will have yet to fix the drainage issues — effectively halting the process. Robeson PTA President Kristi McDuffie said fundraising members hadn't heard of a solid "commitment" to fixing the issue or developing a timeline when they'd reached out to district officials on their own or via the building principal.
"I think it's been an acknowledgment, but I think no one is able to give us: 'This is going to happen on this day,'" she said.
There still isn't a settled date for repairs, district spokesman John Lyday said. But since the district hired civil engineering firm Berns, Clancy and Associates in late May to prepare a report on the flooding and potential repairs, Lyday said the district has "taken this issue very seriously."
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Lyday said a letter to the district sent on May 17 prompted officials to take action. Robeson parent and personal injury lawyer Patrick Hanlon was the author — and it wasn't the first communication he'd had with the district.
In the winter, he'd seen water from snow and precipitation freeze over the sidewalks near the playground and watched some people slip or slide on the ice. The conditions, he said, were "a lawsuit waiting to happen."
His first letter, in March, went to someone charged with facilities oversight. He said he received no response.
He tried again in mid-May, noting the lack of response in the new letter.
"I wrote to the superintendent and the assistant superintendent and said, 'What can be done?'" he said.
Within a week, Superintendent Susan Zola replied, saying that there was a plan, "but what that plan was, I don't know," he said.
"I'd like to see it fixed, but knowing the school board has finite resources and other projects — even just having an idea of when it will be fixed and communication to (the principal) who can communicate it to the PTA that it'll be fixed in the amount of time we have."
There had long been talk about raising money for new facilities at Robeson, McDuffie said, since the current ones are outdated and parts unusable. But efforts to raise money in earnest began "about a year ago" for the estimated $90,000 to 100,000 needed. Parents and children sold cookie dough, held a walk-a-thon and started penny wars in the classroom to get the $37,000 they have now.
"We raised that pretty quickly — quicker than I thought, to be honest," McDuffie said.
If they keep pace, they could be close by the end of this year, which is one reason a timeline is important.
"My worry is they go a couple years and then all of a sudden we do that work that two to three years' worth of kids won't see," Hanlon said. "There is no reason this can't be fixed."
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Asking people to donate money to fund a new public playground isn't always easy, members found.
"That is the main question people ask — 'Doesn't the school district pay?'" recalled Robeson parent Cory Rolfe.
Historically, PTA fundraising has replaced playgrounds across the district, some taking years to do so. Based on that, Robeson members say they felt the impetus was on them to start their process.
"I think it's not only an issue with Unit 4 — it's happened across the nation where districts and states become more reliant on the PTA to raise money for the playground," McDuffie said.
That's one reason Illinois PTA officials talked at their convention on how to draw a line between what they do and don't do. The mission, state PTA President Brian Minsker said, is to "make every child's potential a reality by engaging and empowering families and communities to advocate for all children.
"You might notice it doesn't say anything about being a checkbook for the school," he said.
Ideally, fundraising goes to things that further that mission — like classes that teach adults how to do math homework with their children at home, or what to do in a parent-teacher conference.
But, he said, "we understand that parents don't want to deprive their kids of opportunities at school, whether it's a playground or computers in the classroom or technology."
And so, parents often pick up the responsibility of fundraising for capital projects. But not all schools have an active PTA, and not all parents have the time or the resources to fundraise or donate money. Relying on PTAs for funding can reiterate socioeconomic divides.
"The issue we have with the PTA is more from an equity point — there are schools that do not have the ability to raise funds like that and there are schools that do," he said. "... Where parents have been able to pick up the ball and help support student success, that's great, but not everyone has that ability in terms of parents in access to capital to do that fundraising."
To get new facilities at Robeson, parents have decided that fundraising is the best use of their time — although McDuffie said it doesn't necessarily feel like a choice.
"I feel like if we don't provide them, then the students won't have them," she said.