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Counselor funding contingent upon fields issues

Insisting that the school district play ball, the City Council pressed the Mercer Island School Board last week to resolve field-availability issues in exchange for funding youth counselors.

Last Monday, the Council unanimously approved paying the district’s share of six counselors who work in Island schools, but with a caveat that the School Board must accept first. The Council added five conditions to an interlocal agreement it has held with the district for nearly two decades. If the School Board accepts the deal, the city will pay an additional $180,000 for youth counselors this academic year. The money the school district will save will then be available to fund educational needs.

Citizens asked the city to fully fund the counselors, who are technically city employees, to help the district put money back into the classroom. The district faces $800,000 in cutbacks this year. In past years, the two agencies split the bill, such that the city would normally pay about 60 percent of the $430,000 cost.

But two of the five conditions set by the Council dictate the district to resolve problems that the city’s Parks and Recreation Department has been struggling with over the use of ballfields. The conditions stem from a history of issues regarding who gets access and when between the two government bodies. City officials say that the district has ignored their calls to open fields to the public after the Council contributed hefty sums of money to help pay for new all-weather artificial turf at Islander Stadium and the South Mercer Playfields.

“This is a series of loose ends we have been discussing with the School Board for years,” Councilmember Steve Litzow said during the meeting.

A year ago, Parks and Rec. Director Pete Mayer wrote in an e-mail that the city and district were “overdue for circling the wagons on ballfield-related issues.” City Manager Rich Conrad said the Council’s conditions addressed “locked” school fields, and e-mails show other efforts have failed. The City says that locked fields prevent the parks department from renting them to athletic clubs, even when school teams are not playing.

In an e-mail sent by Conrad to assistant city managers in September 2007, he expressed the difficulty of getting the district to change its ways and open the fields.

“We may at some point need to call the district on this behavior in a more public way,” Conrad wrote.

The School Board is likely to discuss the agreement at its next meeting, which is tomorrow night.

School District Superintendent Gary Plano was at the Council meeting and later said that the district would continue partnering with the city on issues of mutual interest. He also said he did not anticipate the extra conditions stipulated by the Council.

“The City Council specifically wants a subcommittee to talk about scheduling issues, but I wouldn’t want my elected officials to discuss these issues. That’s my job, and I’m already working with the committee," Plano said. "While things may not be perfect, I am putting in all efforts."

According to city and district policy, schools get top priority for district-owned fields or gyms, and the city rents the facilities when schools do not need them. But city officials said the district does not always share the fields when they are not needed by schools.

The city and local sports clubs have also been upset by unfair scheduling that they claim takes place at the high school. In an e-mail dated Sept. 18, 2007, Mayer wrote to the district the frustration that he was hearing from sport clubs because of a double standard in field availability.

In the e-mail, which was forwarded from Mayer to Liz Dodd, the district’s director of business services, the executive vice president of the Mercer Island Youth Soccer Club, Julie Crow, wrote that the Island’s Lacrosse Club was violating city and school policies to reserve fields. According to Crow, the Lacrosse Club — whose director, Ian O’Hearn, is also the high school boys’ team coach — was taking advantage of his coaching status to gain access.

“MI Lacrosse Club offers multiple programs year-round. When the need arises, they have consistently used their high school connection to secure fields (with priority and without fees) to get the fields they need,” Crow wrote. “It is time for the city to step up and enforce the policies and help the community do what the rest of us are trying to do — share the fields, get along and support you and the others involved.”

According to Mayer, locked fields also cost the district money. In another e-mail sent to Dodd, Mayer wrote that the district only made about three-fourths as much money in field fees for Islander Stadium in 2007 as it did in 2006. According to Mayer’s numbers, the district received $36,812 as of September 2007, compared to the $47,040 it received by that month in 2006.

“The financial impact to the district associated with the lack of stadium availability this past summer appears to be significant,” Mayer wrote in October last year.

During the Council meeting last Monday, Mayor Jim Pearman said that the city had been responsive to the district’s needs throughout his seven-year tenure. This year, he said, it continued to extend its good faith by including several school facilities on this fall’s park improvement ballot measure. The mayor noted that the city’s financial resources were also limited, and spending money on counselors meant there would be less money for other public benefits.

“This is a real choice this time, a real decision for investment,” Pearman said of the Council’s action. “We should never again entertain a decision like this without the whole package of choices to vote accordingly.”

IN ADDITION to the field issues, parking at the high school is another bother that the Council wants the Board to resolve if it takes on counselor funding. The Council wants the district to establish and designate spaces for carpools. Reserving parking spots for carpooling students was also an issue during the development agreement regarding the Boys & Girls Club PEAK project. As part of that agreement, the city wanted a high school parking demand management plan in place by the time the new youth center and athletic facility opens. The condition requiring carpool parking spots caught Superintendent Plano off guard.

“I was surprised by the designation of reserved parking spaces for carpools. Nobody has ever discussed that with me,” Plano said.

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