For people living around LeConte Elementary School, the school’s ample playground is one of the few pieces of green space around.
For a long time it has doubled as a public park (it is listed as such on the city’s Web page), with children in the Ellsworth and Russell streets neighborhood playing basketball and swinging on the swings until dusk on the long summer days.
But a couple of weeks ago, a number of LeConte neighborhood parents were disturbed to learn that their access to the park could be taken away at a moment’s notice.
After parents expressed concern that LeConte students had found drug paraphernalia and dog feces in the park, Berkeley Unified School District security personnel began closing the park after the end of the school day, Berkeley Police Lt. Bud Stone said Monday.
LeConte School Principal Patricia Saddler was unavailable for comment Monday afternoon, but sources at the school confirmed that the park was being closed early out of concern for student safety.
Neighborhood resident Lisa Bullwinkel said she was dismayed to find the park locked up after 6 p.m. when formerly it had stayed open until 10 p.m.
“We’re like rats in a maze,” Bullwinkel said, bemoaning the lack of open space in the area.
“I don’t want my kid playing in the streets. I want him in a park. I don’t want the park to be closed right when we need it.”
“A lot of work went into making it the neighborhood green space,” said LeConte resident Ray Kennedy, referring to residents who have volunteered labor to maintain the school’s gardens and grounds.
Kennedy said he found the park locked up this past weekend when he tried to go there with his preschool-aged son.
“The school year is going to end in a couple of months,” Kennedy said. “They need to have some arrangements to make sure the place is open.”
LeConte Neighborhood Association President Karl Reeh said that in the past the gates to the playground have sometimes been left open all night, something that he agreed was not in the best interests of the community. But to close the park before the end of daylight hours deprives residents of a valuable neighborhood resource, Reeh said.
“It’s the only open space in (the) LeConte (neighborhood), and we treasure that as something that we use a lot,” Reeh said.