District claims right to deny changes in skate park lease, 43 classified jobs join 62 teachers on pink-slip list
By Linda Harmon
A polite yet unhappy crowd faced the budget-weary OUSD board during the three-and-a-half hour public portion of the board meeting Tuesday night. The evening covered more budget cuts and city plans for the proposed skate park renovation.
The major portion of the evening was spent on what has become a thorny issue for the board, the impending construction of a permanent skateboard park on school property.
“This is a preliminary update of a conceptual plan by the city of Ojai,” said Tim Baird, OUSD superintendent, setting the tone. “We have a lease with the city in which the school system, as a landowner, has a right to approve or deny changes in the agreement.” Dale Sumersille, head of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, then outlined the history of the skate park project and unveiled preliminary drawings for the park.
“We are here tonight to get feedback,” said Sumersille, after announcing the city’s intent to have a final plan by late May or June, sending out for bids by late summer. Sumersille said they intended to implement new skate park rules to address behavioral problems, and hoped that installing a tubular steel fence and increasing visibility would address security issues.
Sumersille said current plans did not include a permanent bathroom or other items such as water fountains, shade structure seating, or skateboard locks that were on their wish list for future fund raising. She added the city is researching a “vault” bathroom which is a pre-built structure good for 18,000 uses before needing to be replaced. According to Sumersille, this type of bathroom has been used successfully at state parks in the past.
Baird then reviewed the board’s position, outlining the legal issues including the original 1989 lease between the city and OUSD for use as a Park & Ride lot. The lease has been amended three times beginning in 1997; in 1998 to allow the current skate park to be built, and in 2003 for a permanent skate park with a 23-year term.
According to Baird, several factors have changed without park supervision, including trash issues and two drug incidents, but, most importantly, the school system has had an increasingly distressed financial status.
“Tonight we’re listening,” said Baird. “We’re not approving or denying anything … You do have a right to approve or deny plans for an expanded skating facility. That is very clearly laid out in the lease and we will help you out with staff as we go through this.”
Baird continued listing concerns, including who would ultimately take ownership and the obligation to remove the park at the end of the lease with the resultant costs, supervision, adequate bathroom facilities, and the issue of whether the plans needed to be reviewed by the state.
“Anytime we build anything on school property we need to go through the Department of State Architect, a lengthy and sometimes expensive project,” said Baird, “and if it is going to be built on school property we need to address this issue.”
Baird then got down to the biggest elephant in the room.
“In our initial work with developers there is a negative impact for the school district up to and including $100,000 a year in potential income,” said Baird, referring to the district plans heretofore conducted in closed session for development of the whole district parcel. “And that also should be factored in.”
Baird ended his review by saying the end of the skateboard park planning process occurs when “the board approves or denies” the final project.
The board followed with questions regarding the lease in which the city now only pays $20,000 annually until 2026, including the Park & Ride lot and the skate park. They also questioned the city’s time line for the project which they said provided little time for board review. Several board members, including Rikki Horne and Kathi Smith, then went on record to reiterate Baird’s assertion of control saying they reserved their right to “approve or deny plans and specifications.”
The board then directed questions to Sumersille and the designer regarding bathrooms, trash, and again, security. At one point Smith asked if there had been any arrests at the skate park and a policeman in the audience replied that there had not.
After the board raised questions about the ratio of money required for maintenance vs. low percentage of use by area youth, the park designer responded by saying “an in-ground skate park increases use and decreases maintenance, which would be virtually zero.”
The meeting was then opened to public comment by Linda Taylor, board president, who reminded the audience, “The board is just receiving information.” Taylor’s statement didn’t stop more than one speaker from complaining that the school board was anti-skate park.
“I would just ask you to look at this as an opportunity,” said Sunday Rylander. “I feel an underlying theme from the school board that this is not a positive thing. But skateboarding is, and the kids really deserve it. Be thorough in your plans but really look at it saying what can I do to make this happen.”
Duncan Van Lent, a father of a skateboarder, also spoke in favor of moving the process along and urged that problems be dealt with when they arise. Ivan Bonds, a skateboarder for 33 years, added nine out of 10 problems at the skate park are caused by non-skateboarders.
“Do football and softball players go through this?” said Bonds, referring to the obstacles of supervision and maintenance raised by the Baird. “I’ve been to parks from Oregon to San Diego and half of them are not supervised.”
Board member Steve Fields restated his concerns about drug use, safety issues, bathrooms and maintenance. Board member Horne also affirmed Baird’s comments saying, “We do have approval rights and our first responsibility is to the students coming in … the skate park is not our purview.”
Taylor reminded the audience of the noticing of 70 teachers saying, “We have made a request for proposals to develop the property so that we would have some kind of revenues to use that would help us.”
Board member Smith concurred, saying she got her first skateboard in 1975.
“I definitely recognize the value of a skate park to those who don’t play football, basketball,” said Smith. “I just want people to realize in the 10 years we have been looking at this we have experienced declining enrollment and are pink-slipping teachers every year. Things have gotten desperate for us … It is not our mission to provide recreation, it is the city’s.”
Board member Pauline Mercado, previously on the Parks and Recreation board, was the lone support for the skate park despite the difficulties and dire economic conditions of the school district.
“We made an agreement, a lease,” said Mercado, “and I think that integrity calls for us to uphold that agreement … I think it’s high time that our children have a skateboard park and I see no objections to having it on the grounds.”
After that, discussion moved to School Library Week with an appeal by Carina Solecki to keep the already-depleted services intact.
“We make the connection between the school and the community,” said Solecki. “Even in a town as small as Ojai there are kids who won’t be able to step into a library except at school.”
The board then moved on to the lay-off noticing of 43 classified positions in addition to the certified employees already noticed earlier this month, with Horne acknowledging the difficulty saying “every single person impacts our kids.”
The public meeting ended with an in-depth presentation by Karen Williamson, Nan Davis and Dawn Damianes of the pilot program for selection of the state-mandated updating and purchasing of math texts. The teachers and 17 others have already spent a year piloting texts that now will not be purchased due to budget restraints.
“This is one of the most important curriculum decisions we will be making,” said Baird, commending the teachers for their work, adding the teachers volunteered their time.
“They do it because they want to help get the best curriculum for our kids,” said Williamson, responding to the board’s expression of gratitude.