Empire Elementary School garden barely finished before vandals hit

EMPIRE — Empire Elementary students head back to school today, opening books, sharpening pencils, writing about summer vacation.

But they won't be gardening. Vandals saw to that.

Empire PTA president Becky Clegg and other volunteers spent Thursday, Friday and Saturday creating a garden bed in the school's courtyard. By Sunday morning, it was ruined.

Her daughter, fifth-grader Rita Mireles, discovered the damage. Sunday was Rita's 10th birthday.

"We just finished it yesterday, and we went over this morning to check it, and it was totally destroyed. The pipes were cut. All the sprinkler heads they didn't take are broken," Clegg said Sunday. "It took us six months to raise the money."

The PTA, started in February at the K-8 school, sold school bracelets and sugar-free suckers, partnered with teachers on talent shows, and sold popcorn and drinks at the book fair to raise the $500 for the garden project.

The school's kindergarten- through-third-grade special education class was going to grow vegetables and flowers in the 7-by-14-foot plot. The school's kindergarten classes were going to watch caterpillars turn into butterflies in the spring as a science project.

Gardener Kenny Schaffer helped parents dig out the hardpan dirt that had sat for years in the cement frame. Volunteers put in 20 bags of river rock, weighing 20 pounds each, for drainage, laid the pipes and topped it with 28 bags of topsoil.

Vandalism is a problem at the school, Clegg said. While working on the garden, parents photographed and chased off adults "tagging" the cafeteria and caught teen skateboarders stealing bags of soil.

To thwart thieves, the PTA volunteers glued the sprinkler heads in. Unable to unscrew the heads, the vandals snapped off risers at the tees, compounding the damage.

Today was supposed to be the garden's grand unveiling. Instead, parents will be figuring out ways to raise about $200 to replace the PVC pipes with galvanized metal and gather enough volunteers to dig out the dirt and rocks.

Bee staff writer Nanette Austin can be reached at