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  • Writer's pictureBen Avey

Open Fields on April 9 School Board Agenda

“Why do my kids have to jump the fence to play on a field that I pay for?”

When I heard that question from my friend and neighbor, who is also a San Juan Parent, it catalyzed a thought I had been mulling since the pandemic.

Why are our fields closed to kids? Why are they closed to our neighbors?

Growing up in Fair Oaks, I spent thousands of afternoon and summer hours at Dewey, Will Rogers, and Del Campo outside of organized activities. We were kids, and we just played. When I was young, we rode our bikes to Dewey to play on the playground. I played catch with my Dad at Will Rogers when he got home from work. In high school, I’d head over to Del Campo to run the track and practice (teenage version of playing) with my teammates in the off-season. Our schools were our community.

At some point, that stopped, and school administrators reclaimed school fields. They didn’t believe that school fields belonged to the community - they belonged to the district – exclusively.

That didn’t sit well with me.

Just over a year ago, my board colleagues and I asked our district Facilities Committee, which is made up of board-appointed members and staffed by the district, to research “non-permitted use of fields” and come back to the board with a recommendation. Non-permitted use is a fancy way of describing the process by which our neighbors walk on the track without a permit or buy special liability insurance (yes, that’s the current requirement.)

In February, after a year of research and stakeholder outreach, they provided a nine-page report and made a unanimous recommendation:

“San Juan Unified School District high school track and fields shall be available to the public for non-permitted use during non-school hours, except when the track and fields are being used for high school activities or other permitted events. The track and fields may be closed without notice if the High School Principal and Deputy Superintendent of Schools determine that there are documented incidents of vandalism that necessitate locking the gates during non-school hours.”

As a next step, the School Board has placed the item on the agenda for our April 9 meeting. As a discussion item, we will have the opportunity to discuss the report, hear from staff, and offer the Superintendent direction on next steps if the majority of the board agrees.

I haven’t been shy about my opinion on this matter. In Feb. 2023, I recommended to the board that we have our Facilities Committee research this issue and come back with a recommendation. A year later I asked for the recommendation to be placed on the agenda. In August 2024, I published an article titled “Let's be intentional about community,” sharing my feelings on the manner. And most recently, I shared my thoughts on how “open fields” may impact my opinion of future bond measures.

Nevertheless, the Facilities Committee makes a strong case for those who are undecided. They interviewed and surveyed hundreds of people, including parents, teachers, coaches, athletic directors, kids, and more. They visited sites, observed current practices, and interviewed risk managers, among others. They even found a 2001 article in “Athletic Business” where the district and school board praised the collaborative effort it took to build the Bella Vista stadium and use it as a place for community use.

Of course, there are a lot of people with concerns. There always are. There are also a lot of “what if” questions, which always pop up, too. I think the recommendation addresses these concerns.

I look forward to the discussion on April 9 and hope it will allow us to come together and rebuild our community in person, in our local neighborhoods, and in our schools.

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