AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser
LONG BEACH — Superintendent Jenny Risner is looking forward to a time when Peninsula kids can play ball on an artificial turf field that never gets muddy. But they’ll have to wait a bit longer. On Feb. 23, Risner announced Ocean Beach School District leaders have decided not to run an April levy that might have paid for the new field and other improvements to the district’s athletic facilities. Instead, Risner said in a Facebook post, the district will determine how to shore up security at the district’s four campuses, and put a modified levy measure on the ballot later this year.
Risner’s announcement came nine days after Nikolas Cruz, 19, allegedly murdered 17 students at his former high school in Parkland, Florida.
“I could not sleep at night,” Risner said on Feb. 28. “My gut was just telling me I cannot continue down the path of a turf field, knowing that our schools are not as safe as we can make them.”
Dream of fields
“It’s baseball season,” Risner said, gesturing at the gusting rain outside her office window. She knows it’s tough for kids to play outdoor sports in a region that receives about twice the average annual rainfall for the U.S. It’s doubly tough to play rainy-season sports like baseball on fields that are barely above sea-level, she said. Ilwaco High’s perpetually soggy baseball field drains poorly. Water accumulates, causing pits and dips to develop. Staff do their best to maintain it, and community members periodically donate sand to fill in the holes, but they always come back.
“I think we’ve done as much as we can in terms of patchwork. It’s just time that we raise it up, put a good drainage system in, replant it,” Risner said. The football field shared by the high school and Hilltop Middle School has problems too. It gets extremely muddy, making games less fun and more dangerous for players. That’s why many schools along the Oregon and Washington coasts now have fields made from the increasingly popular synthetic grass used in some pro-football stadiums.
Funding the field house
District leaders first recognized the need to update the district’s athletic facilities a couple of years ago, Risner said. They started talking seriously about how to make it happen in 2017.
In January, the board passed a resolution for a capital projects levy, which they planned to run in April. If approved, the levy would have paid for the baseball and football field improvements, resurfacing the track, and replacing Kaino Gym with a large, metal “field house.”
In addition to alleviating frequent competition for gym access during school hours, Risner said, the new field house would make it possible for locals to play a variety of sports indoors. She envisions opening the facility to the community on evenings and weekends.
“I really want to make our facilities available for the public to use more. We don’t have a YMCA or a rec center,” Risner explained. “Where do kids go? They don’t have any place to go.”
School shootings hit home
School shootings are always distressing to educators, Risner said. A Sept. 13, 2017 shooting that left one student dead and three wounded in the tiny eastern Washington community of Rockford was especially upsetting for her, because she knows the district’s superintendent.
“I felt like I knew the school and knew the people in it,” Risner said. It became impossible for her to ignore her growing doubt about prioritizing athletic facilities after the Feb. 14 mass-murder at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. She shared her concerns with her school board. The members agreed that protecting students should take priority over improving sports facilities.
“I know we can’t make [students] 100 percent safe, but we can make them a whole lot safer than they are,” Risner said. The district has already withdrawn its resolution for the April ballot. At the next school board meeting, Risner will recommend that the district develop a new resolution that replaces the new turf field with the security upgrade. If the board agrees, Ocean Beach officials could get the revised levy on the ballot in August.
Better than it used to be
After a series of hoax school shooting threats over the last few years and one lockdown when a 911-caller mistook a UPS delivery man for a gunman, the district began using money from its general fund to pay for some basic security improvements.
Last year, the district installed “buzz-in systems” at the elementary schools, making it tougher for visitors to simply walk in unnoticed, Risner said. The district also purchased sliding metal door barricades that teachers can put into place to keep anyone from entering their classrooms.
“Beyond that, that’s really all that we have in place,” Risner said. The middle school has cameras, but no buzz-in system. The high school has cameras, but they don’t show what’s happening outside the building. There’s no buzz-in system, and some doors don’t lock.
“We don’t have what we need right now, and we don’t get money for that from the state,” Risner said.
Planning for safer schools
Over the coming months, Risner expects to consult with community members, other school districts, and security experts about how to make Peninsula schools as safe as possible. She said she won’t know what the local costs will be until they have a more concrete security plan.
In the meantime, she says she is looking for grants and other potential ways to pay for the new turf field.
“I will continue to aggressively go after opportunities for turf,” she said. According to Risner, most people have been “supportive and happy” about the decision.
Against arming teachers
Washington allows trained security officers to carry guns on school campuses, according to a Feb. 28 Crosscut report, and some districts in eastern Washington are considering policies that would allow teachers to become trained as guards so they could carry. Risner’s not considering that option.
“I think that is a bad idea on a lot of different levels,” Risner said. “I really believe what we need to do is look at getting stronger security systems in and more mental health support for students in schools — not arming teachers.”