Monterey High’s football field | Joe Livernois
By Royal Calkins
At first glance, controversy over plans to enlarge the Monterey High School football facility and add permanent lighting might seem like just another neighborhood dispute of little importance to anyone beyond the potential glare.
But a deeper look also raises concerns about the way the Monterey Unified Peninsula School District — like most other school districts in California — manages great sums of public money and whether the district can be trusted to play straight when asking taxpayers to okay bond financing measures. Though the $213 million Measure I was approved just 16 months ago, district officials are already surveying potential voters about the idea of another large round of borrowing in the coming years.
Neighbors of the hillside campus are focusing on the lighting and traffic problems in a pricey area that is already straining to accommodate after-school events. Others, meanwhile, say they feel they were tricked into supporting the measure because campaign literature emphasized the need to repair and improve classrooms, science labs and other instructional space while making little mention of athletics.
Community concerns about the impact of permanent lighting and the adequacy of the district’s review of the environmental issues prompted Superintendent P.K. Diffenbaugh on Tuesday to announce that approval of the environmental study will be postponed, along with a public hearing that had been scheduled for Sept. 24. He said he hoped the move would ward off litigation over the adequacy of the environmental review.
That announcement came the day after Voices raised questions about a seeming conflict of interest regarding that review. The district had hired a Monterey firm, EMC Planning Group, to review the issues of stadium lighting, traffic, sound and other factors and to prepare the environmental study — a “mitigated negative declaration”— which details why the district should not be required to prepare a full-fledged environmental impact report. The EMC report cost the district $30,000 while a full EIR could cost three times that.
The apparent conflict is that EMC’s president, Michael J. Groves, has been Monterey High’s baseball coach for nearly three decades, a part-time position that carries a small stipend.
Diffenbaugh said Monday that the district’s lawyers had opined that there was no impermissible conflict because Groves would not personally benefit from the project itself. It wasn’t clear whether the lawyers considered that EMC’s fee came from project funds. Groves declined a request to comment, saying by email Wednesday that the district had not authorized him to speak to the media.
EMC’s contract required the firm to respond to community letters generated by the negative declaration with the anticipation that fewer than five would be received. Before the deadline at the end of August, there were more than 200. A sizeable number, many from MHS graduates, supported the stadium project but a clear majority were in opposition, mostly because of concerns over the lighting. (Among the letters supporting the project was one from Joe Livernois, a founding editor of Voices.)
Among the critical responses was an extremely long one from Molly Erickson, a Monterey lawyer who specializes in environmental litigation. She included traffic and sound studies as well as a lighting study she had commissioned that concludes light pollution from the football field would be considerably worse than EMC predicted.
“As a homeowner in the Monte Vista neighborhood one block away from the neighborhood, I am very concerned about the impact of the proposed stadium lights, specifically the height and lumens … and the impact on parking in the surrounding neighborhood,” wrote Mo Ruehsen. “Also, since when do bleachers, stadium lights and a new athletic field cost $12 million?”
Lisa Knight wrote, “We have lived two blocks from Monterey High since 1984. There have been relatively few problems … . However, we do have concerns about the proposed revamping of the field. Permanent lighting would change the nature of the neighborhood at night. We would have much more traffic without adequate parking … . Please do not allow modifications that make the school a less desirable.”
But another neighbor, traffic engineer Rich Deal, were among those supporting the plan.
“I welcome the higher activity level and positive energy that night games will bring along with some extra noise, light intrusion and parking problems,” wrote Deal, who has also been a part-time water polo and swim coach at the school. “The students using this field are OUR kids playing football, girls field hockey, boys and girls soccer and boys and girls track. Providing a venue for night games is one more positive thing we can do to offset all the far too negative things available to our kids off the field at night.”
Several letter writers from the neighborhood said they felt the stadium project had been sprung on them without meaningful public input, an assertion that Diffenbaugh finds laughable.
“We met with every Rotary Club that would have us, with the Monterey City Council, the Seaside City Council, the Marina City Council … ,” Diffenbaugh said. He said the stadium project was addressed at public school board meetings on several occasions and that the neighbors will be given a fair chance to air their views when the public hearing is rescheduled.
Others complained that they had voted for the bond measure because the district emphasized the money would be used for repairs and improvements to classrooms and other instructional space.
Diffenbaugh said materials promoting the bond measure made it clear that athletics would be included in the mix of projects. He said the Monterey High project was not envisioned at that time but emerged when the district’s facilities advisory committee set priorities for bond spending.
Critics, however, point to a recent survey of district residents that found sports facilities to be among their very lowest priorities.
For many years, Monterey High’s night football games were played at Monterey Peninsula College. Temporary lights, powered by propane, were installed about 15 years ago at the high school stadium, but district officials say they are inadequate and cause pollution. In addition to new, permanent lights, the project would involve the removal of more than 200 dirt parking spaces to allow for construction of a 500-seat visitors’ section across from the home crowd. Diffenbaugh’s staff calculates, however, that the project and related steps will actually add 21 parking spaces.
The stadium, created in 1938 as a WPA project, is now called Dan Albert Field in honor of the former mayor and longtime football coach.
While some of the critics say this would eat up money that should go into general campus improvements, the superintendent emphasized that the project is needed for safety reasons. He explained that athletes involved in several sports — including football, soccer and lacrosse — now share just one practice field, creating numerous hazards. The bond project would add a second field along with a softball diamond, a press box and a 2,400-square-foot weight room.
The bond measure on the June 2018 ballot was supported by more than 70 percent of those voting. The ballot language did mention athletic facilities and stadiums but only fairly deep in the fine print.
One of the flyers distributed by district officials in the run-up to the election begins:
“Students in the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District — which serves Monterey, Seaside, Marina, Del Rey Oaks and Sand City — have made great strides in recent years. Graduation rates have steadily increased and district schools have been recognized statewide by the California Department of Education and California Business Roundtable and nationally by the US News and World Report and by the National Education Policy Center.
“Despite the growing success of our students, the District’s newest school was built in 1965, more than 50 years ago, and all of our schools are in need of repair. Additionally, there are over 100 aging portable classrooms in our District. Some classrooms and school facilities have been updated recently, but there is more work to be done. Upgrades to our schools would help ensure that every student has equal access to a safe and modern learning environment.”
The flyer goes on like that for three more paragraphs before mentioning athletic facilities in a list of potential uses for the money:
- Providing up-to-date science, technology, engineering, arts and math classrooms
- Fixing and replacing leaky roofs and old portable classrooms
- Replacing aging plumbing, gas, sewer and electrical systems that are over 50 years old
- Updating classrooms for career technical education and workforce training programs
- Repairing and updating classrooms, science labs, athletic and other school facilities to keep pace with 21st-century learning (emphasis added)
The flyer notes that the bond money can only be used to improve public schools in the district and cannot go toward administrative salaries.
The flyer concluded, “A citizens’ oversight committee, annual audits and detailed project list would be required.“ It doesn’t say when the project list would be required and doesn’t mention that such project lists are routinely amended again and again until taxpayer dollars have paid off the debt.
It doesn’t say that the citizens’ oversight committee is appointed by district officials and that the committee’s role usually involves little more than reviewing financial paperwork to make sure the recordkeeping is in order.
Until recently, Monterey neighborhood activist Carole Dawson chaired the district’s bond oversight committee. She resigned early this year, but not out of concern about the Measure I process. She said she maintains confidence in the district’s leadership and feels that its management of bond matters “has greatly improved in the last few years.”
Dawson said, however, “I am not happy about the way the Monterey High School athletic field improvements project has been handled.” Unlike others who object to bond proceeds going toward athletics, she said her concern is the lack of an environmental impact report and the chance that proposed limits on the use of the stadium will not last.
In an email, Dawson continued, “The district has put together a set of rules that they said they will abide by, which limit the number of night games, the hours, use of loudspeakers and lights, etc. … I don’t think anyone objects to five to seven home night football games per year at MHS. However, the fear is that over time the number will grow to five to seven night games and other events per week because the district can make money renting out the field.”
Over time, Dawson predicted, the stadium will draw more visitors, creating more traffic, noise and litter while spreading unwanted light across the neighborhood.
“Three neighborhoods are impacted by this project: Old Town, Monterey Vista and Alta Mesa,” she wrote. “Believe it or not, the sound from MHS games can be heard as far away as the Alta Mesa neighborhood.”
Diffenbaugh said it certainly is possible that district officials sometime in the future could open the facility up to more events but there are no plans to do so. He said a formal policy limiting the usage will go to the school board for approval shortly and that it will include references to the district’s long-term wishes.
Dawson and other committee members were critical of the district’s handling of a previous bond measure that made considerable use of bond lawyers and consultants who had contributed significant amounts to the successful bond campaign. Subsequently the state enacted legislation preventing bond professionals from receiving contracts to work with bonds they helped create. That caused many bonding firms to stop contributing to bond campaigns. The new rules don’t apply to contractors, architects or vendors that might benefit from the proposed projects.
In addition to checking with legal counsel about the firm that prepared the environmental documents, EMC, Diffenbaugh said the district checked on another potential conflict. School board member Betty Lusk is the mother of Monterey High’s head football coach, Henry Lusk. The superintendent said the lawyers said Betty Lusk is free to vote on stadium-related issues.
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