When Portal Elementary School Principal Dr. Laurie Mascolo announced Friday that new playground equipment would arrive in 2018, she could hear cheering children all around the school.
“My kids are so excited today! We told them about it and they know it’s going to take them a couple of months, and it’s not going to be here when they get back, but they are so excited,” Mascolo said.
Meeting Thursday, the Bulloch County Board of Education quietly approved spending $409,235 on playground equipment in advance, by a full year, of money from the renewed Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or ESPLOST. Of the nine elementary schools, five deemed to have the greatest playground needs – Nevils, Stilson, Brooklet, Mill Creek and Portal – will receive the new equipment.
Friday was the last day of school before the Christmas-New Year’s break. As Mascolo noted, the playground equipment will not be waiting when school starts back Jan. 4. But Superintendent Charles Wilson said Bulloch County Schools officials hope it can be installed before springtime.
Portal’s playground deficit was obvious. Mascolo had the largest structure on the kindergarten through fifth-grade play area removed for safety one year ago, midway through the 2016-17 school year. A bridge-like thing with three canopied towers supporting slides, it was falling apart.
“We tried to add pieces or different things to remedy it, but they hadn’t made our equipment in 10 or 12 years,” Mascolo said. “As the slides were pulling away from main structure, they could remove the slides and we could pay to put paneling up to keep the kids from falling off, but that was the only thing we could do.”
Yellow caution tape marked a portion off-limits before the whole thing was removed. Since then, the children from kindergarten through fifth grade have had their swings and one small climbing dome.
But now, on order from Hasley Recreation, supplier of Miracle playground equipment, will come a $83,724 package featuring two main platform-and-canopy structures with climbing elements and a total of four slides, two of them “twisty,” the principal noted.
Also included are four separate pieces – a stand-up teeter totter, a merry-go-round, a child-size plastic climbing wall assembly and a “Maypole,” with a large overhead circle children can grab onto. This is supposed to develop upper body strength and also balance, since it tilts a little. Other elements aim at spatial awareness.
An $85,000 limit
Mascolo worked with a physical education coach, the school nurse and teachers to choose from plans presented by five companies. The package they chose was the second-least expensive, with three other firms’ proposals ranging up to $84,911, and one down at $72,976.
“We actually were very fortunate,” Mascolo said. “We got an incredible amount for the money we are spending.”
Each school was assigned a maximum of $85,000. Paul Webb, the school system’s chief operations officer, put six playground equipment companies in touch with the five principals. It was a request for proposals, not a bid process in which all companies were expected to offer the same items.
“We didn’t necessarily go with the low bid,” Webb said. “Each school went with the company that the principal and the school leadership team felt gave them the most bang for the buck.”
Mill Creek Elementary School chose an $84,995 proposal from Game Time, the highest cost of six offers, but all but one of the others offers were within 3 percent of that price.
“We’re very excited,” Mill Creek Principal Jennifer Wade said. “ The structure that was there previously had a slide and not too many students could get on it, and so my goal was to provide playground equipment that would promote physical activity for the hundred-plus students that will be out there at one time.”
In a situation similar to Portal’s, Wade had that one large structure on the Mill Creek playground removed by maintenance personnel last May. The slide was cracked and other parts giving way, and with a neighborhood very close the school, Wade said she was concerned about the safety of children playing there even during the summer.
The playground still had another slide, swings and jungle-gym type structure, but Mill Creek has about 720 students. Teachers and students have been very creative with ball games and other activities but are looking forward to the new equipment, she said.
“It’s going to be huge because Mill Creek has had the same playground equipment since the school opened in 1999.” Wade said.
In the past, individual schools were on their own for playground replacement items, often calling on their parent-teacher organizations to raise funds. At Mill Creek, the PTO paid for shade structures, like big steel umbrellas, costing perhaps $500 each, Wade said.
“The PTO has been very supportive. They help as much as they can,” she said. “But with actual playground equipment being so very expensive, you know, they don’t have $80,000.”
By description, Mill Creek’s new equipment is somewhat similar to Portal’s, with one big structure plus some stand-alone pieces.
Brooklet Elementary went a different direction, seeking “an obstacle course-type structure” with separate components, said Principal Mike Yawn. The school went with the lowest-cost of the four proposals it received, a $71,949 package from Bliss Products. But the school has not had to remove existing equipment, which he said is in decent shape but needs a few repairs, so this will be an addition.
Yawn said he hopes that since the school did not spend the full $85,000, money will be available to add a basketball court for the school’s older children.
“I don’t know if that’s for certain, but that’s at least our plans,” he said.
Stilson Elementary School is approved for an $84,996 equipment package from Game Time. This was the highest cost for six proposals the school received, but with four others within 2 percent of Game Time’s price. Nevils Elementary will get a playground package from Hasley/Miracle for $83,571, the third-highest cost of six proposals.
Playground equipment is one purpose for the ESPLOST renewal approved by almost 81 percent of voters in a Nov. 7 county referendum. Over five years, the 1-percent tax is projected to net at least $51 million, capped at $61 million, with more going for classroom technology, security upgrades, school buses and some building renovations than to playgrounds.
Advance on ESPLOST
But collection of that ESPLOST, Bulloch County’s fourth, does not begin until Jan. 1, 2019, with revenue to begin arriving the following month. Meanwhile, the remainder of the current ESPLOST is going to pay off debt on previous projects.
So for now, the playground funding is coming from the Bulloch County Schools’ general fund.
“I’ll be making an interfund loan from our general fund to our capital project fund, which will then be able to pay for the cost of these playgrounds, and then it could be one of a few options,” Troy Brown, the school system’s chief financial officer, said Friday.
If the Board of Education borrows money through a bank loan or a bond issuance to fund even more projects in advance, the playground funding would then be repaid to the general fund. But if the board decides not to borrow from outside sources, the general fund will be repaid beginning in February 2019, he said.
Brown told the board Thursday that he will bring information on ESPLOST financing options in January or February. The board approved the playground proposals unanimously and without discussion.