Bureaucratic hurdles

EVERETT — Track team captain Allison Weir got fed up with watching teammate after teammate pull muscles, injure shins and damage tendons.

So the Cascade High School senior started a letter campaign. She and other students blamed the injuries on the school’s aging cinder track, which becomes so muddy and rutted it’s unusable most of the year.

They wondered why the district allowed it to go without significant upgrades for 49 years.

The letter-writing campaign didn’t escape the notice of some taxpaye

rs, including a few who wrote their own letters to The Herald about the foolishness of tax dollars funding “perks and pleasures.”

“If so many runners and parents of runners want the track fixed, why don’t they just get their wallets out, pool their money and get it fixed?” Hilra Nelson of Everett wrote.

It turns out a parent group tried unsuccessfully to do just that. The reasons they failed demonstrate how difficult it can be to find a private solution to a public problem.

* * *

Daren Hopper and his wife, Kari, got involved as boosters at Cascade High School four years ago with the aim of replacing the cinder track with a modern synthetic one. All of their children attended or are attending the school.

They found other parents eager to help. A family with a contracting business offered to do the work for free if money could be found to pay for the supplies.

That idea didn’t go over well, Hopper said. High school administrators told him there was no money set aside for the project, he said. Even if there were dollars available, the district legally couldn’t bypass laws that required a competitive bid.

Voters would first have to approve that decision, and that wasn’t going to happen because more important projects had to be put to voters first.

Then there was the issue of parity. If Cascade got a synthetic track, Jackson, the other high school in the district with a cinder track, would have to get one, too.

“We were encouraged to drop any thoughts of it,” Hopper said.

Drop it they did — until the students’ letter writing campaign again brought the issue to the surface.

Upset parents raised the issue with the Everett Public School Board the past two weeks.

Parents told the board it wasn’t just a small group of kids affected, but also gym students, community groups, outside sports teams and neighbors.

Carl Shipley, a parent of a Cascade student, said he doesn’t understand why the board can’t come up with a solution that doesn’t take years. He said people in the community are getting fed up with inaction.

“So what are the blocking issues?” he said. “Politics, bureaucracy, committees, research, discussion, all of the things that people in suits do around a conference table.”

* * *

It’s fairly common for parent groups to work with the district on smaller projects, such as playgrounds. The district also saves money by sharing facilities, like swimming pools, with the city of Everett or other organizations like the YMCA.

The district is too highly regulated for volunteers to handle large-scale projects, said Superintendent Gary Cohn.

“Lawsuits, repairs, compliance issues, employment laws, permitting, bid laws,” he said. “There’s a variety of things that could go wrong.”

The district welcomes help from parents on smaller projects, said Jeffrey Moore, the district’s executive director of finance and operations.

Rather than raise money and write a check to the district, volunteers donate equipment and sometimes labor.

That allows the district to keep the cost of a project far lower.

“As long as they meet our specifications, we’ll accept the donation,” he said.

That model becomes unworkable on more complex projects, such as replacing a track, he said. The work might be too complicated for volunteers. The district also has a responsibility to oversee the work to make sure taxpayer dollars are used wisely.

Volunteer work doesn’t come licensed and insured. If a mistake is made, the district would be on the hook to fix it.

Also, if the district ignores policies and laws, it could face penalties or damage its ability to finance bonds and levies.

“You can’t just have Joe come in with his bobcat (tractor),” Moore said.

* * *

Apparently, Bob Smithson never got the don’t-bring-heavy-equipment-to-work memo.

The former baseball coach at Cascade said baseball facilities were lacking when he arrived in 1987. So he found a way to build batting cages and a two-story building with a press box, concession stand and bathroom.

He did it using money donated from the community, help from the high school wood shop and with his own labor, including digging a foundation with a borrowed backhoe.

“The donor gave us the money, and we accounted for every penny of it,” he said.

He recognizes his approach stirred up some problems for the district, which had to add comparable upgrades for softball to comply with gender-equity laws.

Still, the district is too quick to dismiss creative ideas that might fix problems during a time when there are fewer dollars to go around, he said.

Smithson also criticized the district for considering a new administrative building over improving facilities for students.

Smithson knows a thing or two about paying for tracks. Before retiring, he served as an athletic director — first for Everett Public Schools and then at Oak Harbor. There, he managed to talk the notoriously tightfisted town into passing a bond that paid for a new track and stadium in 2006. He did it by talking to one voter at a time, driving around town with samples of old cinder track and newer synthetic material in the back of his truck.

“We make things more difficult than they are,” said Smithson, who also served as athletic director at Cascade. “This can be a simple solution. The district needs to commit funds to a track.”

* * *

Mike Gunn, the district’s executive director of facilities and operations, likes to tell people that there will never be enough money to pay for all that needs to get done.

The district has its schools and facilities on a 40-year maintenance cycle.

That work gets paid from a capital fund that is separate from the district’s operating budget. The capital fund is designated only for improvements — not teacher salaries. This year the capital fund has $96 million in it, and the district plans to spend just under $40 million. In the next eight years, the district plans to bring in $158.7 million and spend all but $2.6 million.

Bonds make up a large portion of the capital fund — around 40 percent. There are other sources of money the district uses for capital projects, too, including money from the state, fees from developers, rental interest earnings and levies.

Usually, athletic facilities get upgraded when schools undergo major upgrades. Cascade High School had such an upgrade in the late 1990s. The tracks and other fields didn’t get worked on then. “I don’t remember it being brought up as a major need,” Gunn said.

The district said the tracks remain safe for students to use.

Officials said the cost to put in new synthetic tracks at Jackson and Cascade could be anywhere from $750,000 to several million dollars apiece, depending on whether other sports fields are improved at the same time.

In the past, voters have not been enthusiastic about approving bonds if there was any mention of projects perceived as non-essential, district spokeswoman Mary Waggoner said.

An independent survey before the 2006 bond election suggested a likelihood that voters would approve the measure — except when “track” was mentioned to those being surveyed.

The district’s administration compiles a list of projects that need upgrades, but the Everett School Board ultimately decides which projects get the money. The board is having some of those talks right now. One project under consideration: that new $23 million administration building.

When the track came up at a recent board work session, the superintendent told the board it ought to consider that replacing the tracks might not be as simple as paying for a new surface. The district might want to work with other communities or groups to build a larger complex. The project might need to be planned out to make sure its in the best location and done well enough to last, he said.

The board agreed to talk more about the matter soon.

Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or dsmith@heraldnet.com.

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