Long-awaited summit canceled as city objects to OUSD attendee
By Daryl Kelley
So much for the skate park summit.
Leaders from the city of Ojai and the Ojai Unified School District were set to meet Thursday to work out differences about a new city-run skateboard park on school property in downtown Ojai.
Instead, city officials took umbrage to the proposed presence of an extra school official, and the School District refused to withdraw the extra official, so the meeting was canceled.
So, as next Tuesday’s skate park showdown before the City Council approaches, relations between the two most prominent local elected bodies may have worsened, heightening the chance of a legal battle rather than prompt construction of a new skate facility.
The City Council has set a public hearing for Aug. 11 to consider the Ojai Unified School District’s appeal of the city Planning Commission’s approval of the skate park’s design. The city has leased the skate park site from the district until 2023.
Thursday’s canceled meeting was the latest twist in a lengthy campaign for a permanent $350,000 skate park to replace a tattered wooden facility in the downtown area near Chaparral Auditorium.
“I am flabbergasted,” said interim school superintendent Jim Berube. “This is shocking to us … I was with the School District for 33 years and spent $30 million in bond money building facilities, and I have never seen anything like this.”
Berube’s counterpart, city manager Jere Kersnar, said he could only confirm that the Thursday afternoon meeting between him and Berube, two council members and two school board trustees had been canceled.
“That’s all I can say,” Kersnar said.
But Berube said the meeting was canceled because Councilwoman Carol Smith didn’t want Dannielle Pusatere, assistant superintendent, to attend.
Berube, who is retired and filling in until a new superintendent arrives next week, said he wanted Pusatere at the meeting to provide continuity to skate park discussions and to answer city questions. “She’s the resource for our board members on this issue,” he said.
But Smith said it was the School District that changed the script for the meeting, and that Pusatere’s presence was not part of the agreement.
“We saw the meeting as looking at the big picture by elected officials by both organizations,” Smith said. “But they wanted an employee to be present. I said this is about where we as a city and the School District want this property to go. I wanted to know where this property was going to go in the next five to 10 years.”
The skate park site is part of a much larger School District property that includes OUSD headquarters. Because of its prime location on Ojai Avenue, the property has development potential far beyond a skate park, but possibly including it.
Of the Thursday meeting, Smith said she thought it would be “off the record” and between only council and school board members and the agencies’ chief executives. That was complicated by the presence of another person, especially since the Skate Ojai group that had spearheaded the skate park campaign had been excluded, she said.
After back-and-forth communications between Berube and Kersnar over a couple of days, Smith said she called Berube herself on Wednesday evening to make her point. She also called school trustees Steve Fields and Linda Taylor, the two school board members who would have attended the meeting.
Fields said he’d been laying the groundwork for the summit for six months by asking Mayor Joe DeVito to set it up.
“We were all prepared and anxious to begin a constructive dialogue,” Fields said. “I’m disappointed they didn’t want to come and talk with us.”
But Smith said she thought the meeting was supposed to look at broader issues, not the details of skate park design and operation and that Pusatere’s presence was not needed.
“I thought I was more than clear,” Smith said, “and they refused.”
Berube said that Kersnar got back to him on Thursday morning to cancel the meeting, saying that neither Smith nor a second council representative, Betsy Clapp, wanted to have the meeting under the changed format.
The school board members were not willing to pull Pusatere out of the meeting, he said. “Our two board members said absolutely not. She is the director of facilities. She is liable,” he said. “Maybe I should have stepped out … but our members felt this was what we should do.”
Fields and Taylor asked Berube to call Kersnar back and try again, Berube said.
“Jere said the city had answered all of the questions the School District has on the skate park or was in the process of resolving them,” Berube said.
“I said, ‘Jere, that’s not accurate. That’s why the School District filed an appeal.’ My board members are having trouble understanding when our concerns have been addressed. We have about 15 questions we want to ask them.”
OUSD has balked at allowing construction of a new, permanent structure without its approval of design and construction plans, as officials insist is required by the district’s lease with the city. The School District hasn’t approved those plans, or even received them, it maintains.
The School District has also expressed concerns about the level of maintenance and adult supervision at the current wooden skate park, and the lack of a rest room and drinking fountain.
School officials said that the state must also sign off on the design of any permanent construction on School District land.
Smith said she didn’t see the canceled meeting as a setback.
“Not as I see it,” she said. “Whatever the school board does, we have our own time line … We’re hoping for it to be a collaborative effort, but we’re proceeding. It’s so weird: why would they want a piece-of-junk skateboard park when everybody else wants a beautiful new in-ground park. It’s nuts. I don’t see the logic.”
But Fields said Thursday’s missed meeting didn’t help.
“We’re concerned that they’ve behaved the way they have,” he said.