Homer Alaska - Schools

Story last updated at 6:03 PM on Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Borough condemns high school track

District's unused dollars may provide funding for new track

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Risk Assessment Committee last Thursday recommended to Borough Mayor David Carey that the Homer High School track be "shut down immediately, posted accordingly, and rendered unusable."

Now, an effort is underway by Carey and borough assembly members Bill Smith, who represents Homer, and Mako Haggerty, who represents other parts of the southern peninsula, to help fund a new track by using funds returned to the borough by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

The risk committee — comprised of Colette Thompson, borough attorney; Dave Jones, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District assistant superintendent; Craig Chapman, borough finance director; and Julie Cisco, borough risk manager — stated the reason for the recommendation was to protect the borough and the school district from "liability and subsequent litigation."

The track was built in 1985, the same year the school was constructed. Twenty-six years of wear and tear have created cracks, holes and caused the track's surface to crumble. Flooding on the southern Kenai Peninsula in 2002 damaged the track even more.

In addition to the school's physical education classes and sports activities, the track has been the site of Homer's "Relay For Life," an event benefiting the American Cancer Society in which hundreds of individuals participate and thousands of dollars have been raised. Many local events begin at the track and a local running club also uses it for practice.

However, the Risk Management Committee's letter officially hung a "closed" sign on the track.

"It means the Homer track is not available or open for use by anyone," Carey told the Homer News. "No students, no public, no discussion. It leaves no wiggle-room whatsoever."

Dr. Steve Atwater, school district superintendent, said Homer High administrators were notified of the track's closure Oct. 13.

"We're having borough maintenance put signs up to let the public know that's the case," said Atwater.

The risk committee's letter stated, "The condition of the track is such that it needs complete replacement. It is uneven, has poor drainage, and is of a construction that does not lend itself to repair."

Past repair attempts left the track in worse condition, the letter stated.

"Unfortunately, the borough and school district are now in a poor position to defend themselves, as our own employees have stated in print the track is unsafe and there have been numerous public comments to the same effect," the committee wrote.

"We are in the position of 'willful' or 'gross' negligence because we know (or should have known) the condition of the track. This exposes us to even more liability."

Carey and Smith discussed the school's need for a new track during a videoconference with Gov. Sean Parnell on Oct. 10.

"We pointed out to the governor that absolutely he had approved funding for tracks and that Homer absolutely needed the same consideration," said Carey.

Carey said the governor indicated he looked favorably upon local funding matches for projects of this nature. With that in mind, Carey is prepared to introduce an ordinance at the assembly's Nov. 1 meeting that, if approved, would use $663,000 of the district's fiscal year 2011 revenue that went unspent. Estimates for a new track are between $750,000-$1.1 million.

Haggerty said his decision to co-sponsor the ordinance was immediate.

"It's a borough-owned facility and we're very concerned about it," said Haggerty, adding,

"The school board needs to take control and tell the school district that it is important to them."

Smith's support of the a new track depends on how important it is to the district.

"If the school district does not decide it's their priority, I'll have a hard time supporting it as a priority for the borough," said Smith. "Right now they're telling me that replacing windows is more important."

The school district's capital project improvement list was due to the state Sept. 1. The track is third from the top, with roof replacement at the top and window replacement coming in second.

A bond to pay for roof replacement was approved by borough voters in 2010, with a plan to use a second bond to complete the project. The state will reimburse 70 percent of bonded money, according to Atwater. Window replacement is estimated to cost $1.8 million and targets older schools with single-paned windows.

"Windows have very small effect on the operating costs of the school district," said Smith. "That can wait a year."

From a broad perspective, Smith said it shouldn't be up to the assembly to determine the school district's priorities.

"If they're going to decide, even though I think it's stupid, that windows are more important than losing a track program, that's their decision," said Smith.

The district's six-year plan for major maintenance and capital improvement projects will be addressed by the school board when it meets in December.