The Vashon Valkyries girls’ lacrosse team plays a game on the Vashon High School field during its 2016 season. The team is one of many community groups who use school district facilities thanks to an agreement between Vashon Island School District and the Vashon Park District. The park district voted last Tuesday to renegotiate that agreement. (Michael Elenko Photo)

VPD renegotiating contract with school district amid bond finalization

The Vashon Park District voted in an emergency meeting last week to renegotiate instead of renew its current $100,000 contract with the Vashon Island School District which governs the management of Vashon’s shared recreational spaces.

The decision, made unanimously by the park board over the course of one meeting last Tuesday, means the park and school district boards will renegotiate the agreement by the June deadline. The Vashon Commons Agreement, as it’s called, has been in place in one form or another since 1994, and last Tuesday’s decision comes after the park board’s creation of a position paper suggesting the contract is no longer in the park district’s best interest as it currently exists.

“At the time the arrangement began the (park district) had significant reserves and the resources to care for all its facilities, while the (school district) was less financially sound. At this time, the positions are reversed,” the position paper, which was made available at the Feb. 7 board meeting, indicates. The paper was drafted by Vashon Park District (VPD) board chair Karen Gardner, but includes contributions from other board members.

The long-standing agreement allows VPD to use school district facilities — gyms and fields, for instance — for a variety of community programs, such as soccer and basketball teams. In return, VPD pays the school district for maintenance costs. Currently, this decision does not affect any VPD programs or use of facilities, though it is not known what the renegotiation will bring.

The annual costs to VPD have varied over the years, from $20,000 at the agreement’s inception to the current $100,000, but have always been agreed upon by members of both boards. In recent years, however, VPD commissioners have begun questioning the amount, suggesting it’s far too high. That issue came to a head at the Feb. 7 meeting where the position paper was issued and stated that the fee increases have been made with “no facts or evidence to support” them.

“All we want is another look,” Gardner said of the decision. “These are things that are always up for discussion. We have a responsibility to use money wisely and in a way that is fair and equitable. We want (an agreement) that’s more equitable and based on evidence.”

School district officials point to a 2012 study that shows community use of school facilities from November 2011 to October 2012 was more than 13 times that of school use.

“The community has the greatest percentage of use. That’s the main idea (behind this whole agreement),” Vashon Island School District Superintendent Michael Soltman said.

Soltman also says the vote came “from out of the blue” and at a bad time: shortly after Vashon Island School District (VISD) board members discussed using that $100,000 for the replacement of artificial turf at the high school field.

A nearly $10 million bond proposal that will pay for the replacement of Vashon High School’s athletic facilities is set to be finalized tomorrow, Thursday, for an April election. Board members have decided on artificial, all-weather turf for the high school field, but have said that a fund will need to be set up for the replacement of the turf layer, which experts say needs to happen every eight to 10 years.

VPD’s contribution as part of the Vashon Commons Agreement could have potentially helped with that, but VPD commissioners made it clear at the last meeting that they think the amount is too high and should be re-evaluated. No school board members were at the public meeting, which had been called specifically to address this issue.

It is unclear now how the turf replacement fund will be created. At Thursday’s school board meeting, longtime VISD board member Bob Hennessey, who has been involved in multiple Commons Agreement negotiations, proposed the school district put aside $50,000 of its own money to go toward the fund.

“We don’t do this for any other asset — sock away money for replacement costs,” he said. “This is a concession to the public to show sensitivity to their concerns.”

Hennessey contacted VPD about the idea of using these funds for the turf just days before the Tuesday meeting at which VPD commissioner Scott Harvey opened by putting forth a motion to not renew the current agreement. After some discussion, Harvey’s motion was amended to include renegotiation of the agreement. The board suspended the rule requiring a motion’s introduction and vote to be at two separate meetings and voted unanimously to pass the motion ending the current agreement and calling for the negotiation of a new one.

“They’re using our money for their thing,” VPD board member Bob McMahon said about VISD’s idea to use the funds for artificial turf.

Board member Doug Ostrom then pointed out the $100,000 could be better spent on VPD’s backlog of maintenance projects at their own facilities.

Reached after the Tuesday meeting, VPD Executive Director Elaine Ott said that there was not supposed to be a vote at the meeting and that it was supposed to be discussion only. She said the board felt pressured by the school district’s conversations and this Thursday’s bond proposal deadline and that is why it voted.

“My understanding of the meeting was that certainly it would be a discussion,” she said, “but my board felt an urgency to vote. The meeting was (scheduled as) a courtesy out of the timeliness of the school bond issue.”

The park district typically would have had until late March to let the school district know it wanted to change the agreement.

“We had been picking at this with the notion we had until the end of March. All of a sudden we became aware the school district would need commitments from us that nothing would change,” Ott said. “This meeting was to ramp up that conversation.”

Ott said the discussion about the amount VPD is paying as part of the agreement has always been “a sticking point” and what surfaced with the board last Tuesday is a product of the questioning about why the amount is what it is.

VISD board member Hennessey met with Gardner Sunday and said the two boards are amicable and both realize the agreement makes “enormous sense.”

“It would be foolish for the school district to build fields and the park district to build fields and then the school district to build gyms and the park district to build gyms,” Hennessey said. “That’s just not a good use of taxpayer dollars.”

He said that the bottom line is community use of school district facilities makes up the greatest percentage of the facilities’ total use and the agreement needs to remain in place. The renegotiation of the cost to VPD, he said, is rooted in good intentions.

“I was very heartened to hear that the park district still wants to collaborate with us and work out a cost-sharing arrangement in the best interest of our community,” he said.

Both boards will now begin sharing data and will determine an arrangement to share maintenance costs.

“I would like to make this a jumping off point for more collaboration,” Hennessey said.

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