During lunch period at Voorhies Elementary School last Thursday, it looked like a lesson in civics and participatory government.
Instead of using their precious recess to play kickball, hang on the monkey bars or run around the school yard, students were marching. And not in neat little rows and into classrooms at the behest of their teachers.
Pint-sized protesters circled five mature, shade-providing, fruitless mulberry trees in the middle of the playground, chanting, “Save our trees!” Students waved signs they made themselves and raised their fists in the air as they fought for a cause – for many, perhaps their very first cause.
The trees are about 50 years old, and have become a source of controversy on campus. Bakersfield City School District officials plan to bulldoze them, replacing them with solar panels. Parents, and a cadre of kids, say the trees are a source of shade and comfort on campus. They want them to stay, and are circulating a petition signed by more than 375 people.
“We are going to have to wait many years to have shade-producing trees that benefit the kids,” Lori Pesante, a Voorhies Elementary parent, said. “We need shade on campus now and need to make sure we are maintaining the healthy green space.”
But district officials say it’s not a matter of debate. The trees are old, decaying and could pose a safety hazard to students, BCSD Public Information Officer Irma Cervantes said.
“We understand there is sentimental attachment to the trees,” Cervantes said. “There is a lot of history, but we are going to save on utility and remove that danger.”
Voorhies is one of 15 schools where BCSD has decided to install solar panels. Once the projects are complete, the panels will save the district $9 million over the next 20 years, according to Cervantes.
A timeline to remove the trees has not yet been established.
The district contracted a certified arborist to inspect the trees, and the arborist found the trees are dangerous. They are decaying, infested with insects and considered a tripping hazard with their uplifted roots, according to Cervantes.
“We want to make sure our kids are safe, which is always our priority,” she said.
However, parents and students say the district ought to go to greater lengths to rehabilitate the trees and find another space for the solar panels. They asked a landscaper of their own to assess the trees, Pesante said. She didn’t produce a report, but said the landscaper thought the trees could be saved.
Without the grandiose, lush mulberries, Pesante said the school yard was like a “concrete city.”
“We have asked the district to not cut the trees down and to put the solar panels in other places, like parking lots,” Pesante said.
But the district said the parking lot is not feasible.
“The solar panels itself take up a lot of space, and we have limited parking,” Cervantes said.
To make up for the removal of the five trees, the district is going to put in more trees, increasing the number from 17 to more than 50, according to Cervantes.
But that doesn’t solve the issue now, said Pesante.
Those trees, she said, won’t mature and bear shade for decades.
Pesante and other parents have been meeting with staff to stay updated on the plans, but have not yet received a date that the trees will be removed.
Despite the debate over whether the trees can be rehabilitated, or are doomed to a bulldozer, there’s one thing that’s certain: students at Voorhies Elementary have learned a valuable lesson about exercising their First Amendment rights to affect change – even if it doesn’t bear fruit.