TRIBTOWN: Fundraisers buy new facilities at Cleveland High and elsewhere
Carmel Bender started raising funds to fix the Cleveland High School athletic track when her daughter, Olivia, was a senior on the cross-country and track teams.
'The surface sheds off and destroys school uniforms and shoes,' Bender said. 'You can't even run on the inside lane because it's total water.'
Now, three years later, Bender's daughter coaches high school runners and the track is still a disaster, resembling an obstacle course with water hazards, uneven surfaces and a crumbling top layer. So far, Bender and a relentless team of parents have raised $1 million, half of the money needed to upgrade the school track and replace the worn-down playing field with synthetic turf.
'Our field is especially ragged - bumpy and uneven,' Bender said. 'One Friday night varsity football game puts the field out of commission for a week.'
The Cleveland track and field is just one example of a much larger problem facing Portland Public Schools. The outdoor athletic facilities at all but one of Portland's 10 public high schools are at the end of their life, and the financial burden to fix them is on the shoulders of parents and neighborhoods.
Portland Public Schools used 1996 bond revenue to resurface the tracks of all 10 public high schools, but didn't set aside any money for future resurfacing even though the district knew the tracks have a 10-year lifespan. The only exceptions were Lincoln and Grant High Schools. At Grant, boosters and the parks bureau kicked in extra money during the resurfacing for a higher quality running surface.
High school playing fields also are in poor condition, forcing athletic teams, such as girls and boys soccer at Cleveland, to practice at neighborhood parks. Bender sees it as a loss of revenue and a missed opportunity for community building.
'It's crazy for the kids in Southeast soccer to have to trek out to Delta Park,' Bender said. 'Every high school field should be done because that serves every neighborhood.'
Bender points to Gresham High School, which installed a new track and synthetic field in 2002. The playing field saw an astonishing 2,400 percent increase in usage from high school sports teams and community sports organizations. Earlier this month, Barlow High School, also in Gresham, opened its new synthetic field and officials expect similar results.
Portland Public Schools' only artificial-turf field is at Lincoln High School, which also replaced its track in 2003 thanks to a massive campaign by parents and students.
Through grants, auctions, student fundraisers and donations from individuals, businesses and community organizations, Lincoln parents raised $1.3 million. The new track cost $400,000, and the new field cost $900,000. The field is rugged and requires no maintenance, so it's constantly being rented to community football, soccer and lacrosse leagues.
'You can literally play on that field 24/7,' said George Osgood, chairman of the Cardinal Field Project.
Frustration's part of it, too
Although the fundraising was a success, the experience has been frustrating. Osgood says Portland Public Schools has been a terrible partner throughout the whole project. He says they could have cut costs by using school electricians and plumbers, but Portland Public Schools refused. And Portland Public Schools refuses to create a contingency fund for when the tracks and fields need maintenance in the future.
'Yes, they've thanked us and yes, they've worked with us, but financially or anything else they've done - zero,' Osgood said.
'We need to be more diligent and forward thinking when creating partnerships,' said Bob Lawrence, district spokesman. 'It's difficult when you can't commit resources.'
Osgood suggested creating a maintenance fund for Lincoln's new track and field through ticket sales and field rentals, but all that money goes directly to the Portland Public Schools' general fund in which the athletics department is a line item in the budget.
'Part of it is also equality,' Lawrence said. 'That revenue should be spread around to all the schools and not just retained by the one home team.'
A committee answers the call
Lawrence says Portland Public Schools recognizes the need to upgrade high school tracks and fields, but there's no way funding will come from the schools' budget. He says a capital bond is the only conceivable way the school district could afford the fixes.
However, a solution may come from a yet-to-be-named committee of school officials, parents and city leaders, including representatives from Portland Parks and Recreation, to come up with a way to improve outdoor athletic facilities throughout the city.
The group's goal is to work at the community level, advising parents on fundraising by helping them apply for grants and partner with corporations.
'The last thing in the world we want to do is have a split in the city where a very small percentage has improved facilities while others are left out,' said Dick Spies, committee member and Lincoln fundraiser.
Construction on Cleveland High School's new track and field is tentatively scheduled for next summer, and Bender is confident her group will be able to raise the $1 million more that is needed to complete the project.
Another high school, Wilson, is completing construction on an upgraded track, also thanks to a fundraising campaign by parents and community members. And Grant High School boosters are in the preliminary stages of a campaign to replace their field. No other schools have plans in place to improve their tracks and fields.