Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Lorax Strikes Back

Following up on Charlie's post, the PI had an article today on the tree grove at Ingraham.

"A grove of trees near Ingraham High School received an 11th-hour reprieve Wednesday when a King County Superior Court judge ordered a temporary hold on school district plans to fell them."

"Chief Civil Judge John Erlick's decision Wednesday afternoon bars the district from felling the trees until Aug. 27 at the earliest and gives neighbors a chance to seek a permanent restraining order against removing the trees. Erlick also ordered the neighborhood group to pay a $7,500 bond to offset damage to the district if its case is found not to have merit."

The district now has some new things to say about why they withdrew their city permit request, things they never said before.

"District officials say they plan to cut 63 trees to make way for an expansion of Ingraham High School. The district had applied for city permits to build a new wing at the school but has since withdrawn the request. The district plans to submit the request after it has felled the trees.

Zemke and other critics of the plan have argued that the district doesn't believe it will be granted city construction permits if the project includes the tree removal. But the city can't stop the district from removing the trees before applying for building permits.

Addressing Judge Erlick, school district attorney Shannon McMinimee said the district was "trying to avoid a gray area" when it withdrew the permits."

Additionally, the district spokesperson says there's "ambiguity" in the city ordinance.

Really? Tell us more and, in particular, tell us why there was no mention of this previous to this hearing.

Or is it that the district was trying to an end run around BOTH the neighborhood and the city.

Also, just to add to this, there was a meeting in West Seattle (reported at the West Seattle blog) about the Denny/Sealth project (one issue was what is going to happen to the Denny property). The West Seattle blog had a conversation about getting notification of hearings relating to projects with Ron English, who is a district legal counsel as well as Property Manager: From the blog:

"We also asked English where appeal hearings like the one in this case are posted for public access. Short answer to a long discussion - they’re not. He says the public certainly COULD attend - but public comments are not allowed, and the district considers them to be something of an “appellate court” type proceeding, and doesn’t post notice of them. Not ANYWHERE, we pressed - not even if we came down to district headquarters and combed through stacks of paper somewhere. No, he repeated. We pointed out that court calendars are publicly accessible in most jurisdictions where we have worked, often online, and if not online, then you can at least go to the courthouse and see what’s posted for the day. He eventually allowed that he “wished” they provided public notice. We will follow up on this one, as it doesn’t seem quite right for a publicly funded entity to be conducting this type of public business without the public having any way of finding out about it." (italics mine)

And so, what is stopping Facilities from posting this information? Nothing. Nothing but their own stubborn belief that they and only they know what is "best" for this district. It's just plain crazy talk.

Then there was this in the article:

"Meeting attendee Susan McLain added, “Our concern is that the decision has already been made, that the intention is that this (the Denny site) will be more of the athletic center, more citywide fields that don’t truly serve the local schools and the community.”Sundquist said, “I’m not cynical enough yet at the 8-month mark of my term to believe it’s all been decided.” But he also said he doesn’t know why the timeline is so tight, but he expects the school district to enter discussions from the standpoint of wanting to hold the land for a possible future school some years down the road, as its properties on the West Seattle peninsula don’t have as much room." (italics mine)

Don't worry, Steve, you'll get there. And yes, you should wonder, why the district is ALWAYS in a "hurry-up" mode on their timelines. And, yes, the district (via Facilities) likely has already decided what they want to do with the Denny property and are already doing their best to line up their ducks to make it so. Thank goodness, West Seattlites are a feisty bunch who do their homework.

12 comments:

SAVE THE TREES said...

Just a note of concern:

The School District is currently boarding the fence at Ingraham, the arborist from Tree Solutions is there. The Tree Tape for protecting of "remaing trees" is up.

And the word on the street, from somewhat reliable sources is "let the Restraining Order be damned full speed a head."

Is this a "grey" area too?

Please, won't someone shed some light on this.

The school district wouldn't break the law and kill the trees anyway would they?

I think people need to show up and take pictures and watch this one!

This can't be happening can it? They must be jerking the neighbors around right?

This is truly sick. Is it tiime for a recall?

Melissa Westbrook said...

This would be a BIG whoops kind of mistake. I doubt it. It's probably some sort of "we're coming" action to get the neighbors attention.

Not time for a recall but time to let the Board and the Superintendent know how you feel.

Michael said...

"We will follow up on this one, as it doesn’t seem quite right for a publicly funded entity to be conducting this type of public business without the public having any way of finding out about it." (italics mine)"

While I agree it may not be right, the District may be within the law. If the hearing doesn't fall within the bounds of the definition of an Open Public Meeting, they do not have to advertise it. Courts, on the other hand, are held to a different standard.

Maureen said...

This is a bit of an aside (and please don't take it to mean that I approve of cutting down the trees) but, the District plans to pay a contractor $17,000 to cut them. Doesn't it seem (given the local economy) that some Seattle area high school should have a forestry focus that could train kids to safely cut down trees?

Wouldn't it be cool if Seattle high school students could help maintain school properties and get credit for it? It seems to (nonexpert) me that 75 year old firs would be 'starter trees' and good experience for some 17 year olds under the correct supervision.

Steve Zemke said...

Whether the Hearing Examiner falls under some special provision of the open meetings act is irrelevant. The School District has all kinds of mumbo jumbo to deny you information and access.

Remember information is power. So they do everything they can to not give you information and not provide you access to "public" meetings..

Imagine, back in April, I asked the School District for a copy of their budget for the Ingraham Project. I did it as a public request through the lawyer in charge of providing information to the public.

They never did provide me any document, claiming none existed, even though it just so happens every month the BEX oversight committee gets a detailed budget and timeline.

Imagine later when Chris Jackins showed me exactly what I requested, that what he showed me was updated every month, and what in retrospect was either deliberately withheld from me, or the information officer wasn't qualified to do her job if she couldn't find the budget for a $24 million project.

The Project Manager for Ingraham, John McWilliams was heard on the phone saying $14 million and that was all that was available. The total budget of course is $24 million so even that was wrong. He said nothing else was available when she asked.. That was a lie since he goes to the BEX Oversight Committee meeting and if he doesn't get a copy of the monthly budget, what kind of oversight is he being paid to do.

There is no reason to deny the public this information unless you have such disdain for the public that you go out of your way to deny the public information.

Imagine, several of us in about April of this year, asked Peter Mairer when they were going to start building the addition at Ingraham. He told us he didn't know. We asked several times and he stuck with his we don't know answer. Yet he is the School Board's representative on the BEX Oversight Committee. That kind of response from School Board members I would today deem evasive and insulting. Rather than helping us to understand what was happening it seems to be a deliberate attempt to be evasive and untruthful. He just didn't want to tell us when they were planning to start construction. There wasn't even a we hope to start construction or if all goes as we want we will start construction, it was a I don't know.

Again information is power. You should demand at the Seattle School Board meeting's public comment time that they put on the website all meetings and hearings being held. Also all school construction budgets and timelines provided to the BEX oversight committee should be posted.

The Seattle School District has touted the Ingraham School Design Committee meetings held since July of 2007 as "public meetings" ,but the same as hearing examiner appeals, they told no one about the meetings except the people invited by the Principal and the School District. So how is a meeting public if no one knows about it and there is no public posting of it?

We need to demand that they post all these meetings and hearings on the school district's website.

The same goes for things like environmental checklists and everything else they are supposedly seeking public comment on. Who reads the Public Notices section of the Seattle Times or PI everyday to see what the school district is up to.

Not posting notices on the school district's website but publishing in the PI is not really public notice in this day and age. It is an attempt to claim you're notifying the public while you're making every effort you can to make it impossible for citizens to track what is happening.

The Board and School District will not respond without the public demanding more openness. They will not do it voluntarily because the less you know the more they can do what they want without public accountability.

So I hope those that think we need more openness and access to meeting notices and information, not ask but demand it from the School Board. Isn't the Seattle School District a public school district and aren't board members elected to provide oversight on the school district and accountability? If they don't see this as an issue maybe they aren't representing the public's interest and need to be replaced.

Michael said...

Steve,

You say, "Not posting notices on the school district's website but publishing in the PI is not really public notice in this day and age."

While I AGREE with you that notices should be more widely disseminated (including the Internet), by publishing a notice in the PI the District has complied with the law - with regard to Open Public Meetings. Demanding that the school board post all of these meetings online when the law does not require them to post it online will mean nothing to them, unless they are running for re-election.

You also say, "Whether the Hearing Examiner falls under some special provision of the open meetings act is irrelevant." No - it is not irrelevant. If the follow the law with regard to notification, then they are in compliance. They cannot be held to laws that we wish were on the books.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Well Michael, they may not be legally responsible (and you are likely right on that point) but they are ethically responsible to the public they allegedly serve.

The way to make them want to comply is to keep sounding this alarm and seeing how voters react.

snaffles said...

Re: School Disclosing info.
Nope, it doesn't do that.

Example:
March 2008 building addition for Ingraham was to be presented a handful of neighbors received notices. These same neighbors were told that the voters approved the project for the addition in the 2007 levy. I didn't know the voters approved the building plans Did YOU? I thought we voted for money, but not building plans. The public didn't get to comment because we voted the money into the schools pockets in 2007?

Example: The neighbors asked for calendars to be sent in regards to field events. Haven't seen one. Asked for this in May. Field has been in use, but no calendar. The Parks department at least sends something quarterly. But not the School. Neighborhood get's ran over with parking, like the Democratic Convention that was held the same day as the ACT test??
Must have been fun concentration for the Students?

Example: INgraham's portables and Modular Math building were falling apart in 1999 when the field was built, in 2003 when the Science and library were added and still falling apart now. If the public had input which of the above project would have been put on hold while the portables, and math module were replaced?

Example: Current addition plans, to take down trees will increase the school by 12 classrooms. Not exactly. It gives a larger footprint to the main building, but only replaces existing classrooms, thus the same # of classrooms will be at the school.
Often the argument for this addition has been we need the space, we need more classrooms. What the school is gaining is another Courtyard, a forum and 12 classrooms which are equvalent to the 12 they are loosing by replacing the math modular and portables. Public Twisting of words.

Example: If disclosure of future building plans existed perhaps the reason for the West Addition would make sense. But no such plan exists. Unless they are currently making one, to give to the court to win the appeal hearing. But in the SEPA hearing it didn't exist.

Example: It is apparent that there are future plans for Ingraham, but I don't know where those meetings are occuring or when. I don't know if there is a design team? So How do I get my opinion to be heard regarding this new project? which I am sure is already underway, because the SEPA for the west addition says there are future projects.

Charlie Mas said...

Just so it isn't lost on anyone, the day the District decided to attempt to skirt regulation on the tree cutting by withdrawing the permits and cutting the trees without the permits, the Board met in Executive Session to discuss the plan. After the Board met, the District moved forward with the plan.

This means that the Board knew of the plan to evade regulation and approved it.

Please write to the Board member who represents your District and ask them to explain that little two-step they tried to pull. Ask them to explain how it is consistent with their commitment to public engagement.

Charlie Mas said...

Just so it isn't lost on anyone, the day the District decided to attempt to skirt regulation on the tree cutting by withdrawing the permits and cutting the trees without the permits, the Board met in Executive Session to discuss the plan. After the Board met, the District moved forward with the plan.

This means that the Board knew of the plan to evade regulation and approved it.

Please write to the Board member who represents your District and ask them to explain that little two-step they tried to pull. Ask them to explain how it is consistent with their commitment to public engagement.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Snaffles, I can answer a few of your questions. Voters are given a "list" of projects to be done under a levy/bond. However, we are basically voting for a pot of money because the district, if the levy/bond passes, can basically do whatever capital project they want with the money.

Now, it behooves them to stick to the plan. Indeed, in the minutes of the BEX II Oversight Committee, there was concern expresses that it might look like the district had done bait and switch with voters.

However, they always use very vague in the language they use in the voters guide (and this is what really got them in trouble at Denny/Sealth) and so neighbors and community members can often be caught by surprise when the actual building plans are presented. And, many of their claims (12 "new" classrooms) are only replacements (which is also the case at Denny/Sealth).

I think there likely will be future projects at Ingraham (although not for a long time). I was told by Facilities staff that the district is committed to renovating all the high schools. They have except for:

Nova - the poor stepchild high school who may never see any renovations.

Ingraham - which has had updates here and there in a piecemeal fashion. I checked and Ingraham will be 50 years old next year.

Rainier Beach - again, a few piecemeal updates. It was built in 1960 (and, interestingly, was a 7-12 initially). But, if the SE Initiative doesn't work out and the district makes a decision to merge Cleveland and RBHS (and go to Cleveland which is renovated), then obviously RBHS wouldn't get a renovation.

Sealth - again, more piecemeal updates but it, too, is 50 years old (built in 1957). I think the district believes since they are getting more renovations than originally planned for under the Denny/Sealth project that they are good for the next 50 years.

I don't know if Ingraham, RBHS, and Sealth coming at the end of the high school renovations has hurt their changes for an overall renovation but it may not happen. I think the SEPA notation was put in there to cover their bases should they decide to go further.

Charlie Mas said...

Director Sundquist doesn't have to be cynical, but he should be skeptical. That's his duty. That's the job.