A "No sledding" sign now marks the hill behind Kennebunkport Consolidated School, where parents say children have sled for generations. Credit: Donna Buttarazzi | York County Coast Star

KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — Residents and parents were in an uproar Dec. 18 at a meeting with district officials to discuss the Regional School Unit 21 board of directors’ decision to ban sledding during school hours at the hill behind Kennebunkport Consolidated School.

The meeting was the first chance the public had to air their feelings about the ban on sledding, which came about after the $5.1 million renovation to the school, completed last December, changed site drainage and added parking spaces at the bottom of the hill.

“This is a reaction instead of action,” parent Jim McMann said. “We keep taking these things away from our kids. If this is unsafe, then let’s make it safe.”

Parking spaces and a drainage ditch with large riprap stones were added to the area at the bottom of the hill, used for sledding by generations of Kennebunkport children and families.

At its Nov. 20 meeting the RSU 21 board voted to stop sledding during the school day, citing safety concerns and a recommendation from the district’s insurance company, Liberty Mutual.

At that meeting, district Finance Director Bruce Rudolph and Facilities Committee Chairman Mike Mosher presented findings and recommendations for changes to the new drainage areas at the school, including removing the large riprap rocks in the new drainage swale, and taking down the telephone pole in the middle of the hill. However none of the changes approved by the board solves the overall issue of safety on the sledding hill.

Parents at the Dec. 18 meeting felt duped by the construction project that was sold with the promise of preserving the sledding hill, said Kennebunkport resident Amy Johnson, a former district board member.

“I sat at meeting one for this building project, and we talked about a lot of things, but one thing that was a constant was let’s save the sledding hill. That was a priority,” Johnson said. “As a parent, I’m disappointed. As a former board member, I’m sad. I feel like this process wasn’t handled fairly. ”

A community tradition

Citing years of tradition, and the need for fresh air and exercise, KCS parents and community members at the meeting said they want their kids to able to sled during recess.

“What would need to happen to allow kids to sled? What do we need to do to bring sledding back?” Kennebunkport resident Heather Pentland asked.

“This makes me petrified in this community as a parent,” Courtney Clark said. “I think this is a deterioration of a culture of activity in our children. Our kids need to physically move. I think this is a symptom of a bigger problem. If we start taking things away such as sledding, we are overprotecting children and ruining them.”

Kennebunkport resident Jo O’Connor said the the property where Consolidated School sits was in her family for generations.

“You talk about 30 years of sledding here? It’s been much longer than that. People have been sledding here for a hundred years at least,” O’Connor said.

While the board only voted to eliminate sledding during the school day at KCS, signs posted on the hill say “no sledding.”

The signs were installed at the recommendation of Liberty Mutual, and are intended to discourage sledding after school hours, Rudolph said.

The board vote to eliminate sledding for children during school hours was done to “minimize our exposure” to potential liability, according to Rudolph.

Johnson said there was a lot of confusion in the community over what the board vote covered. Mosher clarified that it clearly covered just sledding during the school day.

“If you go back and watch the tape of the (Nov. 20) meeting, that was clearly the motion,” Mosher said.

“So what you’re saying is after school, and on the weekends people are free to use that hill the way they want,” McMann said.

“I am not going to be out there policing that sledding hill. I have said that time and again,” said Superintendent Katie Hawes.

RSU 21 Board Chairwoman MaryBeth Luce pointed out that even if the large riprap rocks are removed from the drainage area, the parking spaces that were added during the school renovation pose the real safety hazard.

“This is a really hard issue to talk about, we realize that. Letting kids slide down that hill, even if we had no swale there, and we grassed it over and we fixed that issue, kids are still sledding into a parking lot, that’s currently filled with parked cars,” Luce said.

One mother suggested that the PTA look into purchasing a type of net that would catch the kids at the bottom of the hill. Another suggested that the snow from the parking lot be dumped in front of the drainage swale at the bottom of the hill to provide a snowbank barrier to the parked cars.

Mosher explained that the snow could not cover the drainage area because the sand will clog it, rendering it ineffective. If the snow is dumped beyond the swale, Mosher said the Facilities Committee would have to consult with engineers to see if it would withstand the weight of heavy snow removal equipment.

Parents asked Kennebunkport Recreation Director Carol Cook to weigh in on what her department is doing for sledding in light of the RSU 21 board vote.

Cook said that while the vote to ban sledding during the school day doesn’t affect the recreation program, she is following suit.

“We have made the decision that if the school has determined that sledding there is a risk during the school day, it’s not in my best interest to decide that it’s safe after school. We aren’t going to say that it’s safe after school but not during school,” Cook said.

She said the Recreation Department now takes kids to the other side of the school, to town-owned property beyond the soccer fields to sled.

“We are doing that and we would certainly allow the school to do that during the school day,” she said.

Mosher asked the parents to assemble a group of people to bring the issue and some ideas for solutions to the next RSU 21 Facilities Committee Meeting on Feb. 2. The committee meets at 7:30 a.m. in the boardroom at Kennebunk Elementary School.

In the meantime, KCS PTA President Elaine Mitchell has set the date for another community-wide meeting at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 3 at Graves Library.

On the Kennebunkport Consolidated PTA Facebook page the “Sledding Solutions Meeting” is billed as a way to “come together as a community and figure out a way to get to yes” regarding sledding on the hill at Consolidated School — both during and outside of school hours.

The meeting will focus on brainstorming ways to make it safe for everyone to sled at KCS given the current challenges with drainage, curbing and the adjacent parking lot.

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