Community protests track rules

For as long as many can remember, the track at Laguna Beach High School has been open to the public, even during school hours. But that changed six months ago when the board of education voted to end the public use of school grounds during instructional hours, citing safety concerns.

At Tuesday's school board meeting, about 10 people spoke against the closure, citing health and emotional reasons, as well as the need for the community to congregate.

"I've relied on that track for 14 years as a part of my training," said runner Leslie Lebon. "I don't quite understand the safety issues."

Other speakers noted that the rubber track was good for their joints and that there weren't any other facilities like it in the area.

"I propose to the board that you get the item back on the agenda," Peter Navarro said. "I don't think there was enough community input."

Although the board is not required to address items that aren't on the agenda, Supt. Sherine Smith read a statement to the group regarding the Oct. 12 decision.

"The pros and cons of having public access to the track were carefully considered and ultimately, consensus was reached that student safety is our first priority," she said. "It is important for us to be proactive rather than be placed in the position of being reactive after the fact. The safety of students is our obligation and first priority."

Smith then went on to say that although public access is facing limits, it is still open during off-hours. Smith mentioned that she had spoken with other districts, such as Newport-Mesa, Irvine and Capistrano, and none of them offer public access during school hours.

Many questioned the issue of safety, wondering if there were any incidents to spark the discussion in the fall.

"Our high school is very centrally located in the community," Smith said Wednesday. "People from all over the country and all over the world come to Laguna to visit. There are many people — besides those that live next to the school — that would have access to campus. We don't want people to have inappropriate confrontations with staff and students."

Smith pointed out that once a suspicious person enters campus, they can enter restrooms and other parts of campus very easily and it's hard to keep track of them.

Ceil Sharman, 71, believes the incident is mostly affecting seniors, who are not being heard.

"I feel strongly that seniors shouldn't be marginalized," she said. "I was wondering if they were really taking the comments of the seniors seriously."

Sharman has walked the route with seven friends a few times a week for the last five years. When she was given the closure fliers in the fall, she noticed that community groups could apply for access. Her application was denied.

Laguna Beach Unified School District has a document on their website that outlines the requirements for organizations that would like to use school property. However, even if groups are approved, they can only use property outside of school hours.

The board policy reads: "Prohibit uses which interfere with or are inconsistent with the use of the school facilities or grounds for school purposes or interfere with the regular conduct of school work. (Any use which occurs at any time 30 minutes before or after or which occurs during a scheduled instructional day or involves a facility scheduled for a school sponsored co-curricular activity are presumed to be inconsistent with the use of the school facilities or grounds for school purposes.)"

A former school teacher, Sharman can understand the district's concerns but believes a compromise is possible by giving groups an ID or even fingerprinting.

Smith agreed that certain recreational facilities, such as the pool and the tennis courts, are intended to be shared with the community.

In the past, some have argued that taxpayer funds were used to build the track, therefore the community has a right to use the facilities. However, Smith said on Wednesday that no funds from the city were used for the track.

"The first and highest use of school facilities is to be school facilities," Smith wrote in an e-mail. "When they are not being used for that purpose, then they can be used by members of the public under the guidelines in the policy."

For more information about LBUSD's policies, visit lbusd.org.

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