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Save Our Playgrounds, Save Santa Monica

By Tricia Crane

When my two sons were in grammar school, at the end of most days they would rush home, drop their book bags and head back to Franklin School to meet up with friends on the playground where they would play tag, toss balls around, or just hang out.

I worked at home back then. I can still see the playground from my kitchen window.

Franklin offered an after-school childcare program for kids who needed more supervision, like help with homework, kids whose parents worked outside the home.

But that playground was a beloved place for all the kids in our neighborhood. “Meet you at Franklin” was their mantra.

Free playground access was and continues to be the most popular use of School District property in our city. But parents have had to fight to save it.

In 1998 the School District and the City announced the new CREST program on all elementary school campuses in Santa Monica. But we were not told there would be no more free play on playgrounds.

When we discovered free access had been eliminated, many families fought back. We protested that there had been no public process to end free playground use. We explained the value of the playgrounds in a city so lacking in public parks.

Parents and other community members started Save Our Playgrounds and fought continuously for a year in the press and at City Council meetings. “Dogs Play and Kids Pay” one child wrote on a T-shirt, pointing out that the City did not require an admission fee at dog parks.

Pediatricians wrote editorials to say open playgrounds were an invaluable place for children’s development, both physically and emotionally.

Supt. Neil Schmidt tried to cut a deal with angry parents and offered a $5-a-month “Play Pass” for our kids as a compromise. We refused to settle.

Eventually there were locks on the gates to the Franklin School playground. There were also kids with bolt cutters.

Save Our Playgrounds assembled a “White Paper” for the City Council in which we compared Santa Monica’s lack of free playgrounds to other cities. Our battle was reported in the LA Times and I was interviewed by NPR.

Parents prevailed in the end. The City Council relented and called a truce. They would continue to allow the informal use of the playground after school and call it “Playground Access,” not to be confused with their weekend and vacation “program” called “Playground Partnership.”

But on May 26, free access to school playgrounds became history ("City Restores $6.4 Million in Budget Cuts; Free Playground Program, Crossing Guards Axed," May 27, 2020).

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, our elected officials never discussed Playground Access, despite dozens of letters of protest from residents. Instead, the Council voted to fund other programs recommended by City staff, including the Santa Monica Police Activities League (PAL) program.

Never mind that the City paid out $42.6 million earlier this year to settle claims filed by multiple individuals who allege they were sexually abused while participating in PAL programs ("Santa Monica to Pay $42.6 Million to Alleged Victims of Sexual Abuse," March 10, 2020).

Never mind that PAL staff failed to follow up on reports that PAL volunteer Eric Uller was molesting children in the program ("High Ranking Santa Monica Officials Told About Alleged Child Molestation, School Board Member Says," October 22, 2018).

On Tuesday night, the City Council also voted to maintain an administrator for their $800 million initiative to fight climate change, a plan that was dubbed as “likely the most costly and ambitious initiative of its kind in the nation for a city its size" ("Santa Monica Adopts $800 Million Plan to Fight Climate Change," May 29, 2019).

Fellow residents, it’s time for a new Save Our Playgrounds campaign.

Santa Monica needs to stop acting like a small nation. We need to stop spending public funds on Climate Change studies, Sustainability programs and other politically-driven campaigns that do not directly serve our small community.

It’s time for Santa Monica to get local again.

Tricia Crane is Chair of Northeast Neighbors and co-founder of Save Our Playgrounds

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