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School, park districts disagree on who should fund pool fix

This version corrects an earlier version that said the park district had already spent $14,000 on engineering expenses related to the project. The school district has paid that amount for those expenses.

The Vashon Pool is slated to open next month, but the island’s school and park districts are disagreeing about who is financially responsible to remedy the drainage problem there, a situation that could lead to litigation and the pool not opening this season.

“We want the pool to open, no question,” said school board member Laura Wishik after a special board meeting Monday. “But it has to be in a way that does not bind the school district to further costs at the pool.”

The school district owns the pool, but the Vashon Park District operates it. This arrangement began four years ago, when King County ceased running the pool as a cost-saving move, and the park district took it on.

In previous years, the pool’s water drained to the school district’s septic system. However,  the construction of the new high school changed that, and officials at both districts learned earlier this spring that the pool’s drainage had been unknowingly cut off last fall during the building process.

Since the discovery of the problem, the school district’s Capital Projects Manager Eric Gill has been working with a variety of regulatory agencies to come up with a solution.

Last week, the Department of Ecology (DOE) approved a plan: a pipe that would go between the pool area and an existing drainage pond to the west of the facility. But such a fix is unusual, and the DOE will require considerable monitoring and testing to ensure no effluent travels as far as the wetlands on the district’s property near Vashon Youth & Family Services, school district Superintendent Michael Soltman said.

“The park district will need to be extremely careful and cooperative in managing the pool to the conditions of this solution,” he added.

If discharging the water is managed well, the solution will work, he said, but if potentially harmful waste is detected in the wetlands, additional measures will be needed for the pool to continue to operate. Those measures, Soltman said, include a surge tank, which would meter out the pool’s waste water, and if problems persist, the installation of an infiltration trench. The engineering firm working with school district estimates those two measures would cost as much as $57,000.

In Monday’s school board meeting to discuss the potential solution, the board authorized Soltman to negotiate with the park district to cover 50 percent of the cost of the proposed fix, estimated to be no more than $40,000. This figure includes $14,000 the school district has already spent on engineering expenses related to the project. The school board also laid out several conditions the park district must meet. It will require that the park district pay for any measures that might be needed beyond the proposed solution, that the park district be financially responsible for all the expenses related to hauling waste water from the pool — a process it has been relied on to ready this pool this spring — and that it adhere to DOE’s conditions for the drainage fix and their associated costs. These requirements would be a included in an addendum to the pool lease the park district has with the school district before any construction would begin, school board members said.

Following the meeting, school board member Bob Hennessey said he believes this is a fair proposal.

“We want to do our part to make sure that opening the pool is a reality,” he said. “We’re willing to meet (the park district) more than halfway.”

He also noted the different missions of the two districts and how those missions affect the school board’s decision-making.

“The school district’s primary responsibility is to educate our kids. The park district collects something on the order of a million dollars every year to operate parks and recreation facilities,” he said. “We think this is a realistic way for the pool to be open this summer.”

Soltman said that he we will proceed with the proposal this week and reach out to Elaine Ott, the executive director of the Vashon Park District.

“The board gave me parameters for a proposal, and I will present those to Elaine and seek an opportunity to discuss how we can move ahead,” he said late Monday evening.

Soltman added that the school board knows that the park district is in a tight financial position and is willing to let the park district pay over time.

The pool is slated to open June 15, and Soltman said meeting that target is still possible from the school district’s perspective.

“I think we still have a great opportunity to put the solution together and to have it in place by June 15,” he said. “We will see what happens.”

In an interview early this spring, Ott explained some of the history of the situation, including that current laws do not allow for pool water in septic systems. No one thought this was an issue, however, because the park district’s former maintenance manager incorrectly informed the school district in 2012 that the pool water did not drain to the school’s septic field but instead went to a storm water system. That same year Jan Milligan, then the director of the park district, signed an agreement with the school district stating that pool water would not go into the school district’s new septic field, built at the same time as the new high school. Neither the maintenance manager nor Milligan is currently employed by the district, and board members who served at that time say they had been unaware of the document.

Adding to the picture, some school district officials say, is that during construction they requested as-built drawings of the pool from the park district, but the park district could not provide them. The school district moved ahead with the drawings it had, and when new sewer lines were installed, old lines were abandoned, including the one that ran from the pool filters to the sewer system and which the school district believed had been abandoned.

Now, with summer fast approaching, the school board’s decision is coming at a time of some tension between the two districts regarding who will pay for the pool fix and related costs to ensure that the pool opens this summer.

At last week’s park district meeting, Ott told the park board that the school district wanted representatives from both boards to meet the next night to discuss next steps for the pool but added that the park district’s insurance company did not want to the agency to discuss financial agreements.

“Their contention is that it (financial responsibility) rests with the school district,” Ott said.

In the conversation that ensued, park district commissioner Scott Harvey suggested — based on a conversation he’d had with Hennessey — that the park district pay $5,000, half of the approximately $10,000 construction estimate to install the pipe. The park district had no assurances its expenses would be covered and it might even face a larger liability, he said.

“It’s time to get it done and move ahead,” he added.

Other commissioners disagreed, however, noting that if the district would agree to pay any amount now, that might convey liability and preclude the insurance company from paying the park district’s pool costs in the future.

In the end, no park board members favored a meeting with their counterparts on the school board, leaving the next steps to the school district. Some park district commissioners suggested the school district should foot the remaining bill, with the financial responsibility to be sorted out after the pipe was in place.

“If we’re only talking $5,000, the school district has got $5,000,” commissioner Bill Ameling said. “They’re not broke. The $5,000 is nothing.”

For a short time last week it seemed that progress had stalled, but on Friday a potential break-through seemed to emerge when Ott announced that the park district’s insurance company had given the district the OK to provide half the estimated $7,500 to help fund the installation of the proposed pipe. (At the time, Soltman thought $7,500 would cover the cost of construction, but that proved to be incorrect.) A payment would not imply wrong-doing on the park district’s part, Ott added.

She also said her agency had turned the matter over to its insurance company and that the two districts’ insurance companies would figure out which agency is responsible for expenses incurred so far.

“We have a fiduciary responsibility to manage our money,” Ott said Friday. “We pay a lot for our insurance. It makes sense to use them.”

By placing the situation in the hands of their insurance companies, she added, the financial dispute between the two agencies would likely become less personal.

“I want our relationship (with the school district) to be solid,” she said. “I have a good working relationship with Michael Soltman. I want that to remain.”

Soltman agreed that he and Ott have a congenial working relationship but said that the involvement of the insurance companies is not as simple as it might sound.

The two insurance companies have very different ideas of who is responsible financially to remedy the problem, he said, adding that a clear determination of who is responsible likely can only be made through litigation. He noted, too, that when Ott informed him she was turning the matter over to the insurance company, she apologized sincerely and said the insurance company had informed her that if it paid any claims, it would seek to recover the funds by suing the school district.

Ott, out of town this week, was unavailable for comment, but Soltman said he is optimistic that it will not come to litigation.

“For the amount of money that we’re talking about to reach a solution, it would be ridiculous to litigate it, and it makes much more sense to collaborate on a solution,” he said.

Monday’s school board meeting came too late to reach park district representatives for comment before press deadline. The next park district meeting is slated for 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 27, at Ober Park. It is expected they will discuss pool issues then.

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