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Originally published Saturday, September 8, 2012 at 6:01 PM

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City, school district let playground wallow in process

A playground is a mighty small thing. The stakes here are not high. But that's the rub: It seems like even the little stuff gets stuck in Seattle.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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For years now, about the only sure way to get a new school playground in Seattle has been for parents to donate one themselves.

That was the idea they had at John Muir Elementary, a south end, high-poverty school. Five years ago parents there hatched an ambitious plan to turn the school's concrete slab out back into a shiny new play area for the school kids, as well as a green city park with gardens for the neighborhood.

But all the money and do-it-yourselfer spirit the Rainier Valley could muster has been no match for the bog of bureaucracy.

Sixty percent of the kids at the school are poor enough to qualify for the free-lunch program. The PTA has a yearly budget of only $30,000. Yet somehow parents and other volunteers raised an amazing $350,000, in grants and donations.

"It was hundreds, maybe thousands, of volunteer hours," says Jenny Ott, a parent who started working on the playground when her son was in kindergarten.

He's now in third grade. The fundraising was completed 2 ½ years ago. After other delays, construction finally was supposed to begin this summer.

It didn't. School has started, but the new playground equipment sits unassembled in a shipping container on the school's basketball court.

It's all on "indefinite hold." The hangup is a maddening dispute about liability, between the school district and the city, which is supposed to be helping build the new park.

The two sides have not been able to agree on the contract that would permit the city to oversee construction work on school-district property. Though it seems to me the two have collaborated on joint projects like this for, oh, a century or so.

"The issue, which relates to an indemnity requirement based in state law, is in the hands of an attorney from the City Attorney's office and an attorney from Seattle Public Schools," said a statement from the city's Parks Department.

Sounds like someone's worried about getting sued — years into the project.

A school-district official predicted the playground would get built, eventually. It's the when that is up to the lawyers.

That is no solace to parents, some of whom have worked on this so long their kids may graduate before they ever get to hang on any new monkey bars.

"What's so frustrating is that from the beginning we looped in the city, looped in the school district, the neighbors, the community groups, you name it," Ott said. "We have done everything to accommodate every layer of process and bureaucracy you can imagine. But it just keeps coming."

Said the school's PTA president, Carol Rava Treat: "How can it possibly be so complicated to build a playground?"

That question is why I'm telling you this story. A playground is a mighty small thing. The stakes here are not high. But that's the rub: It seems like even the little stuff gets stuck.

I was struck during the political conventions by all the rhetoric about how unstoppable we the American people are. The refrain goes: We have such energy and can-do spirit there's nothing we can't accomplish!

But it's also true that we're so litigious you can't even donate a children's playground anymore. At least not without years of struggle. And maybe a crack contracts attorney on your PTA.

"This is a miniature version of that same Seattle talk-it-to-death, analyze-it-to-death process," Rava Treat said. "We do this to ourselves. It's a sorry place for Seattle to be."

Here's a thought that admittedly I didn't run by any lawyers: Go vigilante. If this drags on, parents should just start putting up the danged play equipment themselves, at night or on weekends.

It'd be a new form of civil disobedience. Only in Seattle could you stick it to the man by building the man a playground.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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