La Jolla High School and residents to seek compromise on disputed, public track use

The renovated $12-million La Jolla High School Athletic Complex was unveiled in October 2016. It includes the replacement of the synthetic turf field and resurfacing of the running track.
The renovated $12-million La Jolla High School Athletic Complex was unveiled in October 2016. It includes the replacement of the synthetic turf field and resurfacing of the running track.
(Ashley Mackin)

When word got out in November 2016 that the newly renovated La Jolla High School track and athletic complex would not be open for public use (unless rented through the San Diego Unified School District), the letters came pouring in. During the months of November and December, La Jolla Light received protest letters from soccer players, runners and joggers, and those just generally disappointed by the closure. Since then, a group of residents hoping for community access to the fields has organized — and is more than 20 members strong.

La Jolla High School Principal Chuck Podhorsky said he would meet with representatives from the group to hopefully find a solution to the issue, now that school has resumed from winter break (classes began Jan. 3).

The La Jolla High School athletic field was under construction for just over a year in 2016, and when it reopened, many residents counted on using the facility again. However, they quickly learned that in order to use the track or field, they would have to apply for a rental permit.

“From our standpoint, if organized groups want to rent a school facility, there is a procedure for doing that,” Principal Podhorsky explained. “For instance, some churches rent our auditorium space, and we need to make sure we have adequate support for these events, such as having the bathrooms open and clean.”

Originally, school representatives said the public closure was due to the fact that the facility improvements were paid for with bond funds approved by Propositions S and Z (and not general school taxes), and so considered a District asset. But Podhorsky said the closure was also due to ongoing misuse of the track and field by some community members, and a shortage of school resources.

“There’s been a history of people misusing the athletic fields, which causes additional work for school staff,” he said, adding coaches and directors in the PE department would come to school early to check for — and pick up — dog waste, alcohol bottles and trash.

“It’s not fair to ask our staff to do that,” he said. “Plus, a teacher watching students is not going to be able to sweep the field and check for items as well as supervise the kids.”

Podhorsky also reported issues with people using the field and not leaving when requested, such as during pep rallies, after-school athletic practices, and while other groups are renting the facilities. He pointed out that La Jolla High School offers 27 different sports and so the field is often in use during before and after school hours for practices and games. The Bishop’s School also uses La Jolla High School’s field as a home turf.

“Now that we have this nice, phenomenal new facility, it’s like when you have a new car, you take extra care to keep it nice,” he said. “It would be different if we had a facilities manager to watch over things after school and on weekends to make sure things are in order. That person could supervise the field and make sure people are picking up trash and encouraging runners to use different lanes so as not to wear down the track’s inner lanes. But we don’t have the resources for that position.”

San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) spokesperson Cynthia Reed-Porter told the Light that across the District, it’s uncommon to have joint-use agreements at the high schools. “We work with the City of San Diego to develop joint-use agreements for fields at our elementary and middle schools so those fields can be open to the community before and after school hours,” she said. “However, we usually don’t have joint-use agreements for our high school fields or athletic facilities because the schools need them for physical education, sports (practices and competitions), marching band, etc.

“Principal Podhorsky is the point of contact for individuals or organizations that want to access facilities at La Jolla High School. The group/organization needs to make arrangements to use the facilities under the Civic Center Act. That’s done through our Real Estate department, but it still needs to be approved by the school administrator because of the potential impacts to his/her students and campus.”

But for some, that is not a reasonable requirement. Igor Grant, who is heading a group of residents who want track access again, said the group is not able to pay for the rental permit every week just for casual usage.

According to the SDUSD real estate department’s “2015-16 Civic Center Rate Schedule,” rental costs vary based on use, duration, time of day, security and more. Athletic field/stadium use for a full field starts at $39.50 per hour with a two-hour minimum. Renting the track starts at $50 per hour.

“We’re not a club that wants to use the track for a sport or something formal, we just want to be able to access the public space,” he said. “Some people in our group aren’t runners, they just want a place to take their kids. It’s not right to say you can only use a public space if you pay for it, but it’s also not practical for people like us.”

Grant said he and other runners prefer the La Jolla High School track because of its seclusion and comfort.

“I’m an older person and recreational runner all my life. I’ve got wear and tear on my joints over the years. The track has even cushioning rather than running on the street, which is harder, less even, and presents the risk of tripping on the curb. For me (having access to the track) was helping me maintain my health. There are probably a number of runners in the same position who want to run in a safe place, and I appreciate that I didn’t have to compete (on the street) with cars, walkers, dogs and so on,” he said.

“On Sunday morning, sometimes a family would come and toss a Frisbee, I don’t know what’s so damaging about that. The abuse happens when people don’t treat the facility correctly, and I have seen people bring dogs, even though they’re not allowed on the track. We don’t want the facilities to be shut down because people are misusing it.”

Having heard the school’s concerns, Grant said he thinks they are “legitimate, and we saw some of those same (misuses) in the past.” So he and other representatives will try to get a meeting with Podhorsky in the coming weeks. “I hope we can work out a plan to reopen the facility with rules and guidelines we can all agree upon,” he said.