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Enthusiasm shown for turf field project at St. Helens school board meeting

Officials: Legal process will be followed for $2.2M loan

Photo Credit: MARK MILLER - Bert Mueller, a retired football coach at St. Helens High School, speaks in support of replacing the grass field at Ackerson Stadium with artificial turf at a school board meeting Wednesday, Feb. 25.St. Helens School District officials sought to dispel the suggestion that a $2.18 million state loan approved last month is being improperly handled Wednesday, Feb. 25.

Superintendent Mark Davalos successfully applied for funding through the Qualified Zone Academy Bond program to replace the grass football field at St. Helens High School with artificial turf, among other capital projects and purchases. He and the school district’s business manager, Jessica Pickett, said at Wednesday’s school board meeting that the district will follow a prescribed legal process in receiving and appropriating the money.

“Jessica and I probably work on this daily, and we communicate back and forth,” Davalos remarked.

A former school board member, Matt Freeman, filed a complaint with the district earlier this month over the loan. He alleged that the school board violated policy and perhaps even state law by taking out the loan, since it was not included in its approved budget.

Board Chairman Gordon Jarman referred obliquely during the meeting to a Feb. 20 Spotlight article detailing Freeman’s complaint and Davalos’ response. He confirmed with Davalos and Pickett that “we are all in line, according to our lawyers.”

Under a framework laid out by Davalos, the district will direct advisory committees to determine how best to spend the loan money. Pickett said the school board will be presented with a resolution in mid-April to formally authorize the borrowing of the $2.18 million.

Davalos said the district has also selected a bond counsel to provide legal advice to the district on how to handle the loan. Pickett estimated the counsel will cost the district between $15,000 and $20,000.

Several members of the public spoke at Wednesday’s board meeting to voice support for the turf field project, including the president of the St. Helens Sports Boosters Club, which is putting up a financial match for the loan, and Bert Mueller, a former St. Helens High football coach.

Mueller said when he was coach, the school tried several tactics to make the football field more playable, but “the problem persisted” due to hard soil that kept the field from draining quickly after heavy rains. He echoed several football players who testified last fall in stating that bird droppings from geese and seagulls that congregate on the field also make it a “health hazard.”

All told, the sports complex at St. Helens High could be in for quite an upgrade this summer. In addition to the turf field, the district is also looking at rebuilding the high school’s track. The Boosters are also planning to reconstruct the tennis courts at the high school, while local soccer club FC Columbia County intends to build an 800-seat dedicated soccer facility with a turf field.