District plans to open Eagle's Nest replacement by next school year

File photoThe Eagle's Nest playground at Essex Elementary School has been closed due to structural safety concerns, according to the Manchester Essex Regional School District.

Now that the Eagle's Nest is being torn down, what's next for Essex Elementary's playground space? That's what the question Manchester Essex Regional School Committee began to discuss at Tuesday's meeting. 

The structure, which has been entertaining children for over 30 years, has been deteriorating for some time. At the beginning of the school year, MERSD Head of Facilities Jason Waldron recommended the district bring in a third party to inspect the popular playground's viability. After a study in November, Playground Inspections of New England determined Eagle's Nest had a "very high probability of accidents" and recommended the "removal of the entire structure and swings." Issues cited included an overall lack of resilient surfacing, insufficient adherence to ADA accessibility codes, an abundance of wood rot and weak swing supports.

Last Thursday, Essex Police roped off the play area with yellow caution tape. Since then, elementary school recess has been held on the school's blacktop area. Demolition is expected to begin during February vacation.

"We're at a point where we can't continue to pay for repairs," said MERSD Director of Finance Avi Urbas. 

On Tuesday, Urbas introduced the district's initial plans to finalize the Eagle's Nest's successor to School Committee members. The first step is to organize a steering committee to guide the project. Ideally, it will consist of a member of the district's facility administration and school committee, a playground subcommittee expert and two to three members of the public. Some of their responsibilities include site assessment and permitting, procuring requirements and organizing community involvement. The committee is expected to be up and running by Jan. 28. 

From there, the district hopes to have the project's budget finalized by Feb. 8 at the latest. Vendor selection will begin in mid-February, and design process will follow for the next 6 to 8 weeks. By April 6, the school committee is expected to approve the final design. Then, over the next 12 weeks, parts will be ordered and delivered to the site. Installation will begin in late July and is expected to last between four to six weeks.  

In addition, Urbas mentioned the elementary school plans on salvaging key Eagle's Nest items such as the structure's iconic eagle head bust, the plaques installed around the play area and the various paintings incorporated into the structure. 

During public comment, parents expressed frustration of the abruptness of the Eagle's Nest closure. Some felt the district could have prepared better considering how many visible issues the structure had. In addition to the playground area, Essex Elementary's field is roped off for being too muddy to play on. For the foreseeable future, the hot top is the only area for students to use during recess.

School Committee Chairwoman Shannon Erdmann said that while district knew Eagle's Nest was in rough shape, nobody truly understood how bad it really was.

"This took everyone by surprise," she said. "Kudos to Jason for looking at it and saying, 'Hey, this doesn't look right. We need an outside opinion on this.'"

A young first grader named August asked the School Committee for a "swing set and monkey bars because that is the thing I like to play with." Erdmann replied the new structure will have both. 

Michael Cronin may be contacted at 978-675-2708, or mcronin@gloucestertimes.com.


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