A student reaches put their hands to feel raindrops as it begins to pour on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A student reaches put their hands to feel raindrops as it begins to pour on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘Hollow gestures’ won’t allow Camano forest school to survive, founders say

Island County officials acknowledged they should have given Springwood Forest School families more time to prepare for an impending closure.

CAMANO ISLAND — After abruptly revoking Springwood Forest School’s land use last December, Island County scrambled to stop the school’s closure.

County leaders said they could extend Springwood’s license until the end of the school year, or help with relocation, at a meeting with school staff and families earlier this month.

But school founders Heather and Andy White said the county’s proposals were “hollow gestures” that were too vague for the school to make it work.

The school plans to close at the end of the month.

For two years, students learned outside all day at Four Springs Lake Preserve, a 50-acre park owned and operated by Island County. Meanwhile, park manager Jim McDavid repeatedly complained to the county about school staff and students misusing the land by going into areas he said were not intended for public use.

Students run around while playing a game of fox tail on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Students run around while playing a game of fox tail on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Following McDavid’s complaints, Island County Public Works sent a letter Dec. 22, giving the school two months to leave the preserve.

Teachers said they respected McDavid’s wishes about avoiding certain parts of the preserve. They felt McDavid questioned their right to exist and fill a child care gap on Camano Island, where there is only one other licensed preschool.

Springwood offered a full-time preschool for children aged 2½ to 5 years old, and a part-time program for kids aged 5 to 11. There were 30 students enrolled as of January.

But since Jan. 19, the Whites haven’t held any class at the preserve, citing McDavid’s hostility.

Parents and school leaders have criticized the way Island County handled the situation and want to ensure future outdoor schools on Camano won’t face a similar fate.

‘No further discussion’

At a tense meeting at the Island County Annex Building this month, parents, county officials and the school’s founders gathered to talk about the closure.

Public Works Assistant Director Fred Snoderly apologized for his letter’s timing.

“My intent was to basically give you ample notice to move the school to somewhere else,” he said.

Snoderly acknowledged he was unaware the school’s license was tied to the preserve.

“Had I realized all the impact that this had caused, I would have probably delayed that until at least the end of the year,” he said.

Snoderly said he was looking into delaying the closure until the end of the school year.

The Whites said Friday they haven’t received a formal offer to consider.

Snoderly also mentioned a possible relocation to Elger Bay Elementary’s property — a location McDavid suggested. The Whites have said relocating the school would be a “heavy administrative lift” involving rewriting Springwood’s policies that were only applicable to Four Springs.

‘Leave no trace’

McDavid sent multiple complaints to Island County Public Works leaders last year, according to emails obtained by The Daily Herald via public records request.

In August, McDavid said Springwood staff and students were not following “leave no trace” principles to minimize their environmental impacts. He accused school staff of forming their own trails.

“Heather White with great intent chose to utilize Four Springs as a space for her outdoor school,” McDavid wrote in an email. “If the property as it existed at that time did not fit her needs, then it was her responsibility to choose a different space.”

The Whites acknowledged going off trail, but said McDavid constantly changed his restrictions. Nevertheless, Springwood teacher Olivia Vicioso said staff respected McDavid’s rules.

“Anytime anything was brought up by Jim to a teacher or to Heather, we left the area,” Vicioso said during the meeting with Island County. “We didn’t touch the certain trees, we didn’t go to the places that he was complaining about.”

McDavid made several recommendations to Snoderly and county Parks Superintendent Jan van Muyden to improve the school’s operations at the preserve, although he still believed the school would work better elsewhere.

In an email Dec. 11, McDavid suggested the school host no more than six children, use the preserve two days a week and no longer hold summer camps.

Back in 2022, the county approved the Whites’ proposal to host 12 to 16 students at the preserve on any day.

Co-founder of Springwood Forest School Heather White helps a student put on their backpack on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Co-founder of Springwood Forest School Heather White helps a student put on their backpack on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Snoderly ultimately sided with McDavid and authored a letter addressed to Heather White on Dec. 18, terminating the school’s access to Four Springs in 60 days.

Snoderly hadn’t corroborated McDavid’s accusations about potential damage at the preserve before revoking the school’s land use, he said at the recent meeting with Springwood staff and parents.

McDavid did not respond to requests for comment.

‘No special status species’

Snoderly defended McDavid at last week’s meeting with Springwood families, saying McDavid cannot permit students and staff to establish new trails.

Amanda Parmenter, a Springwood parent and Puget Sound stewardship coordinator for the Washington Nature Conservancy, said concerns over off-trail usage reflect an outdated view of conservation.

“As a society, we’re moving away from the older view of conservation — the purchase of land only to protect nature from people,” she said. “Most conservation organizations, cities, counties — they understand that we are not separate from nature.”

Parmenter struggled to understand why Island County managed Four Springs as a preserve. She mentioned Island County’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan where the preserve is designated as a community park.

“There are no special status species here and no fragile habitat components,” Parmenter said. “It is a classic logged Puget lowland forest with a legacy of cattle ranching and some low-quality wetlands.”

The proposed relocation site of Elger Bay Preserve is listed as a conservation area in the comprehensive plan warranting more protection than Four Springs.

“(It) is a very lovely wetland that sees hundreds of thousands of amphibians laying eggs every spring and crossing the road there every winter. It’s a very valuable area,” Parmenter said. “Habitat-wise, it’s a huge wetland too with lots of waterfowl with ducks, eagles.”

St. Clair said that since the letter was sent, a new obstacle appeared — how the county obtained Four Springs.

Island County acquired Four Springs through Conservation Futures, a county fund that aims to preserve open spaces. St. Clair said the fund prohibits active use of the preserve. Only 10 acres of Four Springs were not a part of the county’s acquisition. That remaining land is used to host weddings and events.

Snoderly said the county was not aware of the preserve’s Conservation Futures designation when leaders approved Springwood’s location at the preserve.

“I should have looked deeper into the use of the Four Springs property,” he said. “I think we would have found the conflict maybe a little early on.”

Still, St. Clair wants to continue working on developing outdoor education in Island County.

She wrote in an email: “I hope we can find solutions for this model of childcare in the future and will continue to work with family advocates.”

Last week, the Whites sent out an email to parents. Springwood’s final weeks would be filled with daily celebrations — a costumed bike party, a dance party, a party for a farm that hosted field trips — and helping students cope with the impending loss.

Aina de Lapparent Alvarez: 425-339-3449; aina.alvarez@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @Ainadla.

Ta’Leah Van Sistine: 425-339-3460; taleah.vansistine@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @TaLeahRoseV.

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