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AZ bill aims to open more school playgrounds, fields

Arizona lawmakers are looking to make a deal with schools. They’re offering immunity from liability for the recreational use of school grounds, and are hoping that in exchange, schools will open up their playgrounds and fields during non-school hours. From Phoenix, KJZZ’s Mark Brodie reports.

MARK BRODIE: Arizona law already includes that arrangement for public parks. Matt Jewett, Health Policy Director with Children’s Action Alliance, says Senate Bill 1059 would extend that to schools.

MATT JEWETT: It would now be more clear that simply because someone comes on to their land, and something happens, they’re not automatically at fault.

BRODIE: The bill would exempt pools and cases of gross negligence on the part of the school. Jewett and other supporters of the bill say more open fields and playgrounds would help Arizona reduce its rate of childhood obesity. Registered Dietician Monika Woolsey says getting outside and running around is good for kids.

MONIKA WOOLSEY: The more opportunities you have, and the more encouragement you have to participate in an outdoor activity, the more likely it is that you’re going to move. If you’re confined and constricted, you’re not going to move. You’re going to be inside playing on the computer.

BRODIE: Data from the federal government show nationwide, close to 90 percent of middle and high schools allow the community to use their outside facilities during non-school hours. In Arizona, that number is 64 percent. But, while many school officials say it’s a good idea to take away liability, not many say that’s enough for them to open fields and playgrounds that are currently locked up when school is out.

CRAIG PLETENIK: Having somebody get hurt, trip over a sprinkler head or trip on the stands, has really not been the issue.

BRODIE: Craig Pletenik is the Community Relations Coordinator with the Phoenix Union High School District.

PLETENIK: For us, it’s really keeping the campus secure, and not having people come in and do damage, because in the long run, it’ll cost the taxpayers there, too, if we have to keep repairing things.

BRODIE: Pletenik says the proposal is a good one, but he doesn’t think it would change anything in his district. Jeremy Calles agrees. He’s the CFO of the Kyrene School District.

JEREMY CALLES: A school, on the weekends, should be treated similar to a park. If our facilities were open, and we’re allowing our play areas to be used by the public, we would expect the same benefits that a city park would get.

BRODIE: Calles says some of his district’s 25 schools share space with city parks, so they’re always open. But, he worries about opening all of the gates.

CALLES: Vandalism is the main concern, whenever you have your facilities exposed.

BRODIE: Bill supporters acknowledge that while liability is a factor in districts’ decisions to keep their open space closed, it’s not the only factor. And, there are districts which already open their outdoor space to the community during non-school hours. Many of them are in rural parts of the state. The Cottonwood-Oak Creek District, for example, opens all of its fields when school is out. Children’s Action Alliance’s Matt Jewett, who also serves on the Creighton Elementary School District’s governing board, says most of his district’s schools close their playgrounds, and isn’t sure whether this bill would change that.

JEWETT: I think it would spark a discussion, but I think it would, even for our district, would be a first step, where we would have to have parents and community members and other people who would have to get involved in talking about how we would keep those grounds clean and keep the wear and tear down.

BRODIE: The State Senate approved the bill earlier this month…it’s scheduled to be heard in  a house committee Monday afternoon.