SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Dianne Helprin can still recall how in the summer, picking up the trash from the playground was a guessing game.
“Is it our responsibility or the town’s?” the former Pemetic Elementary School principal would wonder.
That same question has resonated in more recent discussions about the playground, but neither the school nor the Board of Selectmen could answer it conclusively.
“Nobody wanted to claim [the playground] when it was time to do any work on it,” Helprin said.
Instead, parents themselves tackled the political merry-go-round in which the playground is mired. For decades, Southwest Harbor mothers independently took the initiative to raise money for repairs.
In June, residents will be able to decide whether the town should borrow $180,000 from unassigned funds for the reconstruction of the playground, to be paid back in $30,000 installments over six years. The Board of Selectmen here moved last week to place the question on the ballot.
“The town is looking at a potential lawsuit. If someone gets hurt on that playground, it’s going to be way more expensive than a new playground,” Kristen Goodwin said.
Goodwin led the most recent playground renovation effort, in 2008. Her son and daughter were students at Pemetic, and she was “horrified at the conditions of the playground at the time.” She decided to begin a fundraising campaign but limit it to one summer only.
“I knew typical fundraising efforts went on years and years, and the poor kids whose mother spearheaded the effort probably never saw the fruition of her efforts,” Goodwin told the Islander.
By the end of the summer, she had successfully raised around $20,000. The donations were spent on resurfacing the playground, planting trees along the post office fence to create a sense of privacy, replacing playground equipment which had become too old and dangerous and buying two picnic tables and new trash containers.
“The reality is that the town of Southwest Harbor has gotten a free playground for the past 30 years,” Goodwin said. “It’s time that it was replaced and funded through the town instead of more fundraising and bake sales. That’s a lot of cookies.”
Before Goodwin’s effort in 2008, the last renovation happened in 1989 when Susan Buell and a group of mothers successfully raised $42,000 for that purpose. They, too, were mobilized by safety concerns. At the time, half of the playground’s area served as parking space for teachers, Buell said, and a dangerous fence with pointed tops separated the two areas.
That summer, they formed Southwest Kids Improvement Playground, or SKIP, which Buell chaired. Buell said that, other then giving $1,000 to SKIP’s fundraising effort, the school was not interested in cooperating.
“We really did move mountains, because we were very much opposed by the school,” she said.
The mothers drafted fundraising appeals, researched safety regulations, met with consultants, designed the playground and picked equipment on their own.
Only after presenting the project as a done deal did the principal accept it, Buell said.
Volunteers helped the mothers put the playground together in two days. It officially opened on Memorial Day in 1990. That year, the town report was dedicated to the SKIP committee.
“One of the things we had was passion,” Buell said. “Instead of making us go away by being so sexist and dismissive, the School Committee and principal made us madder, more committed.”
When Dani Piquette-Kelly took over the playground project in the fall of 2015, she thought she was only going to replace some of the slides, maybe the swing sets and wood chips. She knew it was going to require a lot of effort, but didn’t realize just how much the scope of the project would expand.
“A lot of people don’t realize how bad it is. It looks different, looking from the post office fence in, than actually assessing the conditions,” she said.
Piquette-Kelly said that she looked into the costs of replacing only specific items, but the quotes she was getting were as high as an overall reconstruction, she said.
“The playground is the heart of our town,” Piquette-Kelly said. “We want to make it accessible for all children, and we want to do it right.”
The School Committee solicited roughly $30,000 in donations, and the school budgeted $17,000 in its previous budget for the reconstruction of the fence. Pemetic Principal Rhonda Fortin added that the school also attempted to conduct repairs using in-kind donations, but vendors who agreed to help failed to follow through.
Some residents at various Board of Selectmen meetings expressed concern that the town was spending so much money on a diminishing student population at Pemetic. But Buell, Helprin, Goodwin and Piquette-Kelly all pointed out that the playground benefits the town, not only the children who go to Pemetic or Harbor House.
“The town doesn’t have a parks and recreation department,” Goodwin said, calling the playground “the only public space that the community uses.”
To her, putting the renovation of the playground to a town vote is a matter of principle.
“It shouldn’t have to be an angry parent committing to raise money for their kid to be on a safe playground. It should be the town taking care of its youngest citizens.”