A policy decision by the school board limiting public access to the high school track went largely unnoticed by fitness buffs until they literally found their access blocked after Jan. 1, when the policy took effect.
This past Tuesday, about a dozen disgruntled track users attended the school board meeting to express their dismay at the limitations. “We have a top-notch facility that we, as taxpayers, all contributed to,” said Michael Wilkes, who urged the board to reconsider the closure.
Wilkes referred to Measure R, passed in 2001 with support from more than 80 percent of Laguna Beach voters. Property taxes increased about $36 per $100,000 of assessed value to modernize specific facilities at each of the four schools in the Laguna Beach Unified District, which included revamping the dirt and grass field.
By law, board members are not permitted to respond to public comment about any item not on the meeting’s agenda, board president Theresa O’Hare explained.
Superintendent Sherine Smith, not bound by the same rules, read a prepared statement that ultimately emphasized student safety as a top priority, though she cited no examples of security problems. In addition, Smith described consulting with colleagues at other Orange County schools and concluded that “no other district allows unrestricted public access to school facilities during the school day.” The closure was approved by the school board Oct. 12 and took effect Jan. 1.
Asked the following day if she intended to revisit the policy, Smith ruled out the alternate security solutions suggested by the public. Such steps, she said, would take a lot of staff time and would divert resources from schooling, “which is where our responsibility is.”
Most speakers referenced the quality of the rubberized track, which is kind to the joints and well-suited to serious athletes and seniors alike. Leslie LeBon, mother of a high school runner, called the cushioned surface a blessing critical to her own training. “I don’t quite understand the safety issues,” she said.
Karen Dennis, a track user of 15 years, suggested the board consider a compromise, such as fingerprinting or wearing special badges to allay school officials security concerns. “We would like to do anything we can do,” she said.
While safety was repeatedly cited as the reason for limiting public access, “safe” was how most speakers defined their experience on the 400-meter circle. “It’s safe. It’s easy on the legs,” said Linda Hess. Another speaker, there on behalf of a mother of five who had to leave, said the track is the only place she can safely walk with a stroller.
Alison Hecht urged school officials to collaborate with the community as an example to students of what can be achieved by compromise. “If we could come up with a way to work together…we could create a happier Laguna,” she said.
“We want the issue back on the board’s agenda,” said resident Peter Navarro. While the policy change was made during a publicly noticed hearing last fall, he said the board acted without enough public input. He, too, urged the board to direct its administrators to seek a solution.
Ceil Sharman already tried one solution. Sharman and six other residents make up a regular track walking group. They submitted an application for a special permit as suggested by the new policy, which allows local groups request a special permit for conditional use of the track.
Sharman’s “Healthy Walking Class” permit, submitted Feb. 24, was denied without explanation.
Sharman walks on the track for her health and says its soft surface is helping her to avoid a second hip replacement. Afterwards, Sharman said she hopes the board “will reconsider and not marginalize seniors.”
According to Smith, no one incident or safety breach precipitated the policy change, though she did say that some members of the public had been confrontational with staff members and that others had used the restrooms. “We are more concerned about the people we don’t know having access to the kids,” she said, expressing the concern that if something ever did happen because of a safety breach, she and the administration would be responsible.
High school principal Don Austin said that he had recommended to the board that the campus be closed during school activities, a practice he said is consistent with most public schools to help protect the students’ safety. He noted that the track is still heavily used by the community outside school hours and that “The function of a high school is to serve the students of our community to the best of our ability.”
O’Hare, reached for comment after the meeting, said board members listened carefully to residents’ concerns, but must also balance community’s needs with those of students, who are their first priority. She pointed out that the public does have access to the track outside of school hours.
She promised that “our staff will continue to explore whether there are additional ways to increase public access to the track without compromising the security of the high school campus during school hours.”