Education

Iowa City school district settles with feds over playground accessibility

District has spent more than $2 million since 2013 on updates

Iowa City's Longfellow Elementary School, shown after updates to improve accessibility for people with disabilities. Woo
Iowa City’s Longfellow Elementary School, shown after updates to improve accessibility for people with disabilities. Wood chips were replaced with synthetic turf. (District photo)
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IOWA CITY — The Iowa City Community School District this week signed a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice that says the district will make all playgrounds readily accessible to people with disabilities by Jan. 1, 2023.

The agreement ends an investigation started in 2017, when several Iowa City families complained new elementary school playgrounds didn’t meet updated standards. The agreement also documents extensive work the district already has done to improve accessibility and the timeline for future upgrades.

“Since 2013, every school in the district has received and will continue to receive ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) upgrades to their equipment and outdoor environment on a continuous basis,” District spokeswoman Kristin Pedersen wrote in an email.

Justice Department officials visited Iowa City schools Nov. 15, 2017, to audit several playgrounds, including the one at Shimek Elementary School, which had recently been replaced. School Board President Janet Godwin said in 2017 parents at Shimek had complained that the new playground still did not meet federal requirements for accessibility by people with disabilities.

Melissa Krishnan, the mother of an elementary school-aged boy who uses a wheelchair, said during a 2017 public meeting with district officials that even in the newer playgrounds, the wheels of his power chair would catch on the curb or idly spin in unkept synthetic wood chips.

The district has spent more than $2 million in Physical Plant and Equipment Levy money since 2013 on playgrounds and playground accessibility, Pedersen said.

A major focus of updates includes, in some cases, leveling and tamping down wood chips. On other playgrounds, wood chips and grass have been replaced with synthetic turf or a poured rubber surface. The goal is to allow people in wheelchairs or with other mobility challenges to reach more play structures, benches and picnic tables.

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“Grounds and custodial staff have received more than 200 hours of training on the playground safety and accessibility standards, universal design, inclusion, installation of playground surfaces, maintenance techniques and field testing,” according to an exhibit filed with the settlement.

According to the settlement, the district must share architectural plans in some cases so the government can make recommendations before work is done. For minor changes, the district must submit before and after photos. A written report will be required in six months.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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