At the last regular meeting of the University Park City Council, there was an unusual stretch of silence from councilmembers when it came to one particular agenda item.
A public hearing was scheduled for July 16 to discuss the possible provision of a children's play area at St. Christopher's Montessori School (SCMS is associated with St. Christopher's Episcopal Church), but no church or school representative rose to speak in favor of the playground. In fact, no one in the council chambers said anything. So council declined to make a motion to advance the school's request, and the plans for the play area were put on hold until further notice.
Reps from the SCMS, which sits right on the access road at Lovers Lane and North Central Expressway behind the church, proposed what they call a "retreat area" for their youngest students, which would include the installation of a "natural-looking" log for toddlers to climb through, a 36-inch slide and gardening areas.
"It's not an expansion; it's an enclosure," school Executive Director Becky Meyerson said. It would be a "nice, natural place for the toddlers to go play," she added.
In order to create the play area, there would be demolition of the existing pavement, and the foliage would be removed, Meyerson said. Additionally, the school plans to build an 8-foot cedar fence backing up to the US-75 service road for the safety of the children. The renovation would not increase enrollment at SCMS.
Though SCMS already has a playground, Meyerson said the current equipment isn't age-appropriate. Years ago, the church was home to an elementary school, but today the school only serves preschoolers.
Meyerson said the school has raised around $25,000 to fund the "Toddler Retreat" through its annual silent auction, spirit days and donations from parents and grandparents. The Episcopal Church, she said, has provided no funding for the playground specifically.
Meyerson said the school jumped through all the necessary hoops for approval by the council—offering detailed site plans to the City's Planning and Zoning Commission and working directly with UP's Chief Planning Official Harry Persaud to ensure they remained within city code.
According to city documents, the Commission voted 4-1 to recommend approval to the council.
Despite the blessing of the Commission, however, UP Mayor Pro Tem Bob Clark said he felt the council didn't have enough information to grant the school permission to build the playground.
"The church didn’t have any representatives there. No one was there at that city council meeting. I thought [their attendance] would have been very helpful on this issue, and they weren’t there," he said.
As Meyerson said, though, the church and SCMS are under different leadership. While SCMS has its own governing board, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church "provides oversight" to the school, as it is technically affiliated with it.
At the July 16 meeting, Clark mentioned the church's refusal to allow the City of UP to beautify both the north and south sides of the Lovers Lane intersection several months ago. (The church is City of Dallas property, and the school is technically within University Park limits. Only the alley separating the church and the school serves as a city boundary.)
"We wanted to improve that intersection going west on Lovers," Clark said, but the City felt it was imperative aesthetically to make changes on both sides of the intersection, including the church's property.
The church declined the City's request, "for no particular reason that I can tell," Clark said. "I thought it was peculiar that they had declined our offer and yet came back and wanted to build an 8-foot wooden fence."
But Meyerson said that the council was punishing the school's children because of a strained relationship with the church.
"Whatever [the council is] asking for from the church, we as the preschool camp can’t provide them. Whatever they have to do with the church should be taken care of with the church," she said.
The councilman said the City had every intention to cooperate with SCMS but that more context from the school about their plans as well as visuals would have been helpful. Clark's trade is architecture, so he noted that site images are especially important to him.
"This doesn't really have anything to do with the church and the intersection... we certainly hope to work with them, if they would just be there," he said.
He said that SCMS officials are free to contact the City to discuss next steps. The council will likely pick up this topic again for discussion in Sept.
"Had we any inkling this was going to be such an arduous process, we would have been [at the meeting]," Meyerson said. "Our little children should not have to pay the price for the council's pettiness."