Do Vashon kids need a new gym, track and field?

Keara Mulvihill takes down the volleyball net to make way for the basketball team. - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Keara Mulvihill takes down the volleyball net to make way for the basketball team.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

Talk to Jeff Rauma, a Vashon High School basketball player, and one hears in his voice the desperate need for a second gym.

Because of high demand for gym space in the winter months, early dawn is the only time the junior varsity basketball team can claim an hour or two on the high school’s maple-floor court. So every morning, Rauma arrives at school by 5:45 a.m., determined to play a sport he loves.

But it comes at a price, he noted.

“I kind of hit a wall in second and third period,” he said. “I sometimes doze off.”

Talk to Melvin Mackey, a retired Boeing engineer, and one hears a different story about the school district’s $75.5 million bond — a measure that includes $7.3 million for improved athletic facilities.

He thinks the school board made a strategic error when it packaged what he considers the district’s essential needs — more classroom space, for instance — with what he considers the extras — a new second gym and synthetic turf field.

With the economy unraveling, some of his friends and neighbors, people who want to support schools, are now questioning the magnitude of the measure, he said. Had the board created a two-question proposal — offering voters a chance to vote on the academic and athletic needs separately — people who are “feeling the pinch” could have split their vote and given partial endorsement to a district they know is in need, he said.

“It gives me pause to vote for the whole thing,” Mackey added. “I’m still on the fence.”

In about 10 days, Islanders should receive in the mail a ballot for the school district’s bond measure — a proposal to erect a state-of-the-art classroom building and second gym, restore some of the school’s dilapidated but still usable buildings and enhance the theater, track, stadium field and grandstand.

Many, particularly parents, teachers and school administrators, say the project is desperately needed. Classrooms are crowded. Technology is outdated. And teachers have to jockey for space on a regular basis, looking for a quiet corner to plan or a large enough room for students to take tests.

“You should see this room when my whole class is here,” said Steve Sears, a math teacher, as he looked out at his jam-packed honors geometry class during a tour last week and noted that five students were absent. “It gets really crowded in here.”

The athletic facilities are also a mess, they note. The high school can’t host home track meets because the other coaches in the Nisqually League refuse to compete on Vashon’s substandard track.

And competition for the district’s three gyms — Chautauqua, McMurray and the high school each have one — is so intense that coaches sometimes have to move their team from one gym to another mid-practice, losing valuable time as they schlep across the sprawling, three-school campus.

“We probably lose 20 minutes of practice, every single day,” said Kevin Linnell, the McMurray girls basketball coach, whose team starts in the school cafeteria and then moves to two gyms during the course of each practice.

The high school gym is more than 40 years old; Shawn Hoffman, a VHS graduate and a high school boys basketball coach, remembers when he played there. He loves the old gym and its rich, beautiful floors, he said.

During the first game of the season, however, the boiler apparently malfunctioned, condensation built up and the floor became slippery and dangerous, Hoffman said. “The league told us that unless we resolved it, we couldn’t have any more games in the gym,” he recalled.

The district was able to take care of the problem, but it underscored what Hoffman believes will be ongoing troubles with the aging, heavily used facility.

“The demand is only going to increase, and the age is going to continue to be in question,” he said.

But others are concerned about the price tag of the proposed measure, a 20-year bond that will cost taxpayers $150 million when interest is thrown in. Interviews with a several Islanders suggest they’re struggling, wanting to support education and schools, but hesitating because of the costs, the economy and their frustration that the proposal didn’t give them a choice they would have liked.

“People say, ‘If you look at the percentage, it’s just a few dollars more,’” Joan Wortis, an artist, said of the additional costs the athletic facilities add to the bond measure. “And that makes me feel silly.

“But there’s a point at which I say, ‘It’s just too much.’ I’d like to be able to vote on the issues separately, because I think … one can have a good education without all the athletic facilities.”

Bob Hennessey, who chairs the school board, said he pushed for a one-question measure in large part because of community input. Board members held several meetings to discuss the proposed measure before taking its final vote, and at all of them, they heard from parents, coaches, teachers and others who said it was important to include athletic facilities in the whole package.

“Given the widespread feeling that the board heard and the relatively small amount of money we’re talking about, I don’t see that we had any other choice,” Hennessey said. “If we had separated them out, I think we would have lost both.”

The bond measure contains $3.4 million for a second gym, $2.9 million for a new track and a synthetic turf field and $900,000 for improvements to the grandstand.

Each item comes with what the district sees as strong and compelling justification.

Another gym is needed not only because of the growth in school sports, administrators and coaches note, but also because of the growing number of athletic clubs on the Island — clubs that in another community might play in facilities built and managed by a local park district. On Vashon, the school district provides it all.

The winter months are particularly intense, VHS athletics director Stephanie Spencer said. Youth basketball, youth wrestling and Vashon’s volleyball club, for instance, compete with the boys and girls high school varsity and junior varsity basketball teams and boys and girls high school wrestling. The cheer squad, because of insufficient space, practices in the school cafeteria, she said.

The current track is also inadequate, Spencer said. Because of drainage problems, sinkholes and divots appear, and some of the lanes are routinely unusable, she said. Its cinder surface is hard-packed, and a cement curb around its perimeter is a hazard, she said.

Kevin Ross, the former high school track coach, said he and the team would often arrive early to track meets at the other schools so the team could train there; he didn’t want to train on the VHS track, where injuries — shin splints, for instance — were common problems.

“It’d be like a basketball team playing on a concrete court. That’s how bad it is,” he said.

The third big-ticket athletic item is the district’s desire for a synthetic-turf field, a $1.5 million investment that officials say would last 15 to 20 years. The synthetic turf would be installed only on the stadium field, next to the grandstand, the most heavily used of the fields.

Because synthetic turf can take constant use, it would mean the stadium field wouldn’t have to have long periods of “rest,” Spencer said. It also wouldn’t need to be watered or maintained, a high cost that comes from the operating budget, the same pool of money that pays for teachers and books.

Dave Wilke, the district’s facilities director, said the installation of a field that can take constant use would also have the benefit of relieving pressure from some of the other school fields, such as those at McMurray, and reducing some of the high costs of maintaing them as well.

“We can increase field usage without compromising the quality and longevity of our turf fields,” he said. “That’s not a quantifiable thing, … but it’s a huge value.”

But others say that while the athletic amenities would surely enhance the school district, they simply may prove too costly for a semi-rural community with a small student population and homeowners who are reeling from escalating property taxes.

Dan Chasan, a school board member, often questioned the direction of the board when the proposed measure was being vetted last fall and ultimately did not endorse the final package. Today, he said, he’s not actively campaigning against it but, when asked, continues to voice concerns about the costs and their potential impact on Vashon.

All of the amenities would be nice, he said. Indeed, he added, he would love to run on a good track. But he also considers them extras, not “necessities” — expensive items for a small community and a small school district.

“I was a running jock at a school that didn’t have a track at all, … and I survived,” he said.

Mackey, the retired Boeing engineer, said he, too, thinks the athletic improvements would be a nice addition and calls the bond measure “a good package — if people can afford it.”

“But I have doubts that people will step up,” he added. “And I have doubts myself, because it’s a lot of money.”

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