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Playground discrimination

It doesn't inspire confidence when government tries to hide a trivial mistake behind a broader policy debate. The Hillsborough School District's reluctance to replace playground equipment at aging schools has nothing to do with the serious competition for school resources. Monkey bars are cheap compared with the baseball fields and arts studios the district already provides. The playgrounds merely are not a priority. That's a troubling message from a district that promised the federal courts it would treat all schools equally.

The playgrounds have become a big deal only because the district would risk public trust over such a minor matter. Many parents already lack confidence the district is committed to improving educational facilities in minority neighborhoods. Having just won an appeals court ruling closing the federal desegregation case, and with a last-chance reversal by the U.S. Supreme Court unlikely, the district should have jumped at this early opportunity to win a public relations battle by committing to renovate playgrounds at older schools.

But as the Times' Melanie Ave reported this week, the district pays for playground equipment only at new schools, most of which are opening in the growing suburbs. Older schools in the cities are largely on their own. Across the county, 46 of the 109 elementary schools have inadequate playgrounds. Six schools have no equipment at all.

A district spokesman said playgrounds haven't risen to the administration's radar, but that's because parents and businesses have taken up the slack. PTAs at some schools can raise $20,000 or more for new equipment and renovations. But what about schools in less affluent communities? Of the 46 schools needing new equipment, 35 have student populations in which 60 percent or more receive free or reduced-price lunch. One-fourth of the schools are among those with the highest minority enrollment rates in the county.

The inequity is illustrated by the reasons some schools lack a playground. The equipment was removed because it wasn't accessible to the disabled or failed to meet federal safety standards. In other words, some of the oldest schools with the poorest kids face the choice of bad equipment or none at all. The district can do better. Its hard-fought effort to end federal oversight of the schools was conditioned on the premise that local officials could be trusted with providing an equal educational experience to all. The disparity in playgrounds may seem small by comparison with what's going on inside the classroom. But the district's stumble, this early on, adds to nagging doubts about its ability to appreciate the breadth of what desegregation was about.