Sumner School District representatives sat on the edges of their seats last week as the Bonney Lake City Council decided the fate of a decades-old recreation program.
It wasn’t clear the city would decide to take on the role as lead agency of the recreation program until votes were cast 4-3 in favor of the city taking charge.
Council members Katrina Minton-Davis, Donn Lewis, Tom Watson and Jim Rackley approved the agreement while Councilmen Randy McKibbon, Dan Swatman and Justin Evans voted against it.
The Sumner School District recreation program has been in existence since 1991. Back when the program first formed, both the cities of Bonney Lake and Sumner entered an interlocal agreement with the school district, helping fund the program while the district was the lead agency.
The recreation program is not one program but myriad, including sports programs for students of all grades, activities for families and adults, and — arguably the most important — before and after-school care for elementary schoolers, district Athletics Director Tim Thomsen said to the City Council.
Last year, there were more than 13,300 participants in the various recreation programs. This number includes participants who could be counted more than once, if they were enrolled in multiple programs.
The recreation program is self-sustaining, Thomsen told the council.
According to fiscal records, the district made roughly $267,000 in revenue from the program last year, which is traditionally returned to the district’s general budget funds at the end of its fiscal year.
Thomsen said the district was able to turn over a profit because before and after-school program fees bring in around 60 percent of the program’s entire budget, as well as the fact the recreation program as a whole is able to use district facilities like classrooms and gyms for free.
But while the district was bringing in extra revenue from the program, Thomsen said district training requirements were becoming too much of a burden on volunteers to continue the program under district regulations.
The district’s goal is to have at least one head coach and one assistant coach for every 12 students in a sports program, Thomsen said, but “we were barely having enough to have one coach for each team.”
“The school district has all of this training that everyone is required to do, all these costly background checks. It was a burden for volunteers,” Thomsen said in an interview after the Aug. 15 workshop. “The school district has an extremely high standard, being a school district, but a municipality, like all municipalities, they don’t have quite that high of standard.”
In order to reduce the burden of training and background checks on volunteers interested in working with the recreation program, the Sumner School District asked if the city of Sumner or Bonney Lake would be willing to take over the program about two years ago.
According to Sumner Communications Manager Carmen Palmer, the city declined to become the lead agency for three reasons, several of which were also expressed by Bonney Lake council members.
First, the Sumner City Council did not feel a municipality is best suited as a child care provider, “and the existing program revenues and expenditures showed it had become close to 60 percent before and after-school care, not true recreation in the sense most people assume,” Palmer said.
Second, financial analysis showed “soft costs” in the program like human resources, administration and risk assessment, would “pose a drain on any city.”
Finally, the 27-year-old program is due for a “complete review to see what the needs of the community are now and if/how we can meet those, rather than being content to meet the needs of 27 years ago.”
With the current recreation program expiring at the end of August, Palmer said the city will not be signing the new agreement, “but we are not opposed to (Bonney Lake and the school district’s) efforts and will support them where we are able.”
“Every community must decide what is best for their citizens,” Palmer continued. “Bonney Lake’s choice might be best for Bonney Lake, but this might not be the best choice for Sumner. In order to be good stewards of our citizens’ money, we will take the time we need to make a good choice.”
Sumner School District children who live in Sumner are still able to participate without a surcharge.
The new interlocal agreement was signed at the Aug. 15 workshop, and is little changed from its previous incarnation.
The biggest difference is Bonney Lake is now the lead agency for the program. This means while the city is assuming all the risks of running it, it also reaps any benefits, which include any potential revenue the program may bring in.
As the lead agency, Bonney Lake also has more control over the activities provided in the program.
The Sumner School District agreed to continue to house program staff and provide facilities and equipment, as well as free bus transportation and health services for before and after-school child care programs.
Had Bonney Lake decided not to become the lead agency, there would have been a scramble to put together a budget, Thomsen said, but added the district would have made something work.
DIFFERENCES IN BACKGROUND CHECKS, TRAINING
One key point of dissension between council members was whether or not Bonney Lake’s background checks for recreation program staff and volunteers would be adequate to protect children.
Councilman Dan Swatman expressed his thoughts that any lowering of background check standards would be a bad idea.
“You do realize, obviously, the point is you’ve lessened the standards of the people who are in contact with the children. So two years from now, if we get into some big lawsuit where there’s some unfortunate incident, everyone is going to come back to this conversation and these minutes saying you understood as a school district that you are lessening the standards for the people who are in contact with our children,” he said during the July 18 workshop. “And if only you would have done whatever gold check or platinum check, this wouldn’t have happened.”
City Administration Don Morrison tried to allay those concerns during the Aug. 18 workshop by saying Bonney Lake will be following the lead of Kent, Fife, Puyallup, Federal Way and Auburn and how they do background checks for their own city-run recreation programs.
“Essentially, a lot of the cities will put rec staff through the same background check process as they do for any other city employee,” said Morrison. “That may be different than what a school district does under its state regulations, but they pretty well follow a similar process.”
Under district rules and state regulations, volunteers with the recreation program had to go through a long process before they were able to start coaching, Thomsen said.
After a volunteer filled out an application form, which includes submitting a state ID and resume, applicants also had to go through a full fingerprinting, which cost $50 and was only available on certain days.
After that, volunteers also had to be certified in first aid and CPR, a process that can cost between $25 and $50 and take between six to eight hours to complete for first-timers (three hours for renewals).
Finally, volunteers had to go through an eight hour online “Safe Schools” training, provided to the district by their liability carrier.
When all was said and done, Thomsen said, many prospective volunteers were expected to put in 16-plus hours and spend up to $100 in order to land the gig.
Bonney Lake Human Resources Manager Jenna Richardson said Bonney Lake’s volunteer application process, “will not be as onerous as the process that the school district has gone through in the past,” adding that it will involve a simple application, a thorough background check without fingerprinting and an orientation process that is typically two to three hours long for new hires.
MAKING GOVERNMENT TOO BIG?
Councilman Justin Evans and Swatman both expressed Sumner’s concern that a city is not the appropriate agency to lead a child-care program.
“I’ve always been in favors of a parks program, but when we start doing this, most of the money comes from child care. And I’m not for bigger government. I’m not for taking on an entirely new industry that we don’t know, that many better, private companies do for a really good service,” Evans said. “It just doesn’t make financial sense to get into the child-care business. And it doesn’t make financial sense to split those (child care and recreation programs) and take on the loss of a program.”
Bonney Lake Mayor Neil Johnson, who supported taking on the program, and Thomsen disagreed with Evan’s description of the before and after-school programs as being merely “child-care.”
“I wouldn’t call it child-care business. It’s before and after-school activities,” Johnson said. “There’s activities — there’s kickball, there’s art, all the things you do that you see in the program today.”
Katrina Minton-Davis piggybacked off Evan’s idea and asked if it is possible to bring on a third party company that could manage the program instead of the city.
“There is the Y, there is the Boys and Girls Club… there are a lot of organizations that do this type of thing and could administrate a program like this,” she said. “We are in a position where we can manage it, but again, I think some council members don’t think we should be in this business, and maybe we need to take the lead, keep it going and continue to look at it and just do a temporary contract to start out with.”
Thomsen said working with a third party might be less viable for parents. As run by the school district or the city, the before and after-school programs can remain at the schools, but contracting out to a third party, he added, may mean the additional trip to and from school to a new program site.
“We really have probably the best situation for that program, the ‘b and a,’ because it is in the school and it is part of the partnership between Bonney Lake and the school district,” Thomsen said.