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Dismay mounts over the state of Vashon’s fields
The rains have barely begun, but Vashon’s busiest athletic field is already pockmarked by large brown patches, worn areas that will turn into mud holes as the play continues and the rain intensifies this fall.
During a recent tour of the McMurray Middle School field, built eight years ago as a state-of-the-art athletic surface, Dave Wilke, Vashon School District’s maintenance director, pointed out what he sees as the field’s problems — patterns of wear that will only get worse.
“This is where the kick-off tussle happens,” he said, nodding toward a swath where the grass is patchy. Pointing toward a large bare spot in front of the goal, he said, “That’s where the goalie stands.”
At this point in the season, after a summer of minimal use and robust grass growth, the McMurray field — the Island’s main soccer field — should be an even carpet of green, Wilke said. The fact that it’s already sporting bare spots, he said, “is alarming.”
“What’s it going to look like when the rains really settle in?” he asked.
The state of Vashon’s fields has been a vexing issue for years among the Island’s recreational sports community, an issue that has become increasingly tricky and even contentious as the number of Islanders playing soccer has climbed.
In many ways, it’s a good dilemma, says Wilke: He and others at both the school district and park district are encouraged by the large number of young people turning out for
sports. Vashon’s soccer club now boasts 500 kids, up from 250 a few years ago. Other sports, too, from lacrosse to baseball, are competing for field space.
But even with the partial opening of new and improved fields next to The Harbor School, there’s a capacity issue on Vashon, he said.
“It’s a great problem to face,” Wilke said. “But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s also a really hard problem.”
“There’s no standard of care that can address the issue of over-use,” he added.
Indeed, many in the recreational sports community are frustrated by the inadequate number of fields, their condition during the rainy months and the frequency with which those fields are temporarily closed to play.
An effort to address the issue was attempted two years ago, when the school district put forward a bond measure that would have turned the high school’s biggest field into one with synthetic turf — surface that could take the kind of heavy play Vashon’s grass fields can’t handle. The $3.5 million measure failed to garner the supermajority it needed to pass.
Greg Martin, former president of the Vashon Island Soccer Club, is still frustrated that the community failed to pass the measure. “We need to get at least one (synthetic) turf field put in,” he said. “That would solve this problem.”
Against this backdrop, the school district and the park district are increasingly at odds over the way the community’s parks and fields are managed — a situation that has added to the community’s sense of frustration.
For years, the park district and school district have had an agreement in place outlining maintenance, costs and scheduling for the community’s shared recreational assets — parks, fields, the high school theater and the school district’s gymnasiums. In 2009, the so-called Commons Agreement was redrafted, with the park district agreeing to take on sole responsibility for maintenance and scheduling of the Island’s athletic fields and parks.
The new agreement was seen at the time as an effort to create efficiencies and ensure the fields were well-maintained. In fact, members of the park district board sought such an agreement because they were unhappy with the school district’s level of maintenance and believed it made more sense for the parks department to oversee care of what all agreed were shared assets.
David Hackett, a park district commissioner and a lawyer, said he joined the park board six years ago in large part because he was frustrated by the school district’s care of its fields. He was a lead champion for a new Commons Agreement, one that places much greater responsibility on the park district.
“I think the commons were run in a way that didn’t benefit the public,” he said, referring to the days when the school district had primary responsibility for maintenance.
Now, however, the tables have turned, and some are expressing frustration with the park district’s maintenance of the fields. Indeed, under the 2009 agreement, the park district is to craft an annual maintenance plan. It has yet to do so, park district officials acknowledged.
The park district’s mounting financial difficulties — due in part, coincidentally, to its effort to build a new set of fields next to The Harbor School — have exacerbated the situation.
At recent meetings, the park district board has put forward several possible spending cuts for the cash-strapped agency — including a $12,000 savings if it decides not to top-dress the athletic fields this year. School officials say such a decision is untenable; what’s more, they say, park district officials never directly approached them or the committee that oversees the Commons Agreement with the idea.
“I read more in the newspaper about what they’re thinking about in terms of field maintenance than I hear from them,” said Superintendent Michael Soltman, sounding frustrated.
Bob Hennessey, a school board member and a soccer coach, said the park district’s stance of late has raised fundamental questions about the Commons Agreement.
“Does the park district plan on honoring the Commons Agreement, or is it null and void?” he asked. “It’s a serious question.”
At a recent school board meeting, Soltman told the board that he believed the school district would have to dip into its reserve and cover the costs of top-dressing the fields this year — a maintenance measure that involves applying a fresh layer of sand to a field.
“I understand (the park district) has financial troubles. But we also have a covenant with the community to maintain our facilities,” he told the board.
Should the school district cover maintenance costs, he added, it would be a float. “They still have a duty under the Commons Agreement to pay these costs.”
Susan McCabe, the park district’s interim executive director, said the park district just doesn’t have a choice when it comes to top-dressing the fields this year. The agency will also likely have a hard time paying this year’s water bill for the fields. It took the agency until August of this year to pay its 2011 water bill, she said.
“I understand their concern,” she said of the school district’s frustration over the park district’s decision to not top-dress the fields. “But we don’t have the money. We can’t do it.”
Hackett, for his part, said he believes the park district hasn’t taken adequate care of the fields in recent months, a problem that he said stemmed from management issues by Jan Milligan, the former park district executive director who was terminated in August. When the park district’s maintenance director quit earlier this year, Milligan had the maintenance staff report directly to her — “and it’s pretty clear that did not work well,” he said.
But he also said the park district has no intention of walking away from the Commons Agreement and expressed frustration with Wilke, the district’s maintenance director, whom he claims is calling an ordinate amount of attention to the fields’ problems.
“For whatever reason, Dave continues to stir the hornet’s nest on the Commons Agreement any chance he gets,” Hackett said.
Soccer enthusiasts, meanwhile, say the issues are much bigger than the current back-and-forth between the school district and the park district. McMurray’s field, slated to last 12 or more years when it was built eight years ago, is clearly in disrepair, some said, and the school district will likely have to consider replacing it sooner than expected.
“We have so much demand for that field,” said Martin, the former soccer club president. “Even with perfect maintenance, we’d be in the same position.”
But the new fields next to The Harbor School will help take pressure off of McMurray, he added. And while he’s disappointed those, too, are not made of synthetic turf, he’s looking forward to getting out on them.
“Those will be really good fields,” he said.
The Commons Committee, comprised of seven members who oversee the Commons Agree-ment, will meet at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the park district’s Ober Park office.