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Schools can’t afford to alienate volunteers

Post by Kim Bradford on April 29, 2010 at 7:23 pm |
April 29, 2010 5:58 pm

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

Well over 100 volunteers converged on Fawcett Elementary last weekend in a tremendous show of community support for the East Tacoma school.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the experience soured a few of them on working with the Tacoma School District. The district can ill afford to do that to people willing to give of their time and sweat.

The work party consisted of several dozen parents of Fawcett students backed by more than 100 volunteers participating in the annual Comcast Cares Day.

Comcast officials worked with the school to schedule the clean-up day. They received an approved work list on March 15 and assumed everything was a go.

It wasn’t until last week – a few days before the event and more than a month after they had received the school’s approval – that Comcast learned that district and union officials were balking at the scope of the volunteer work plan.

A longstanding clause in the district’s contract with buildings and grounds crews gives the union representing those workers the right to object to volunteer labor.

Tacoma school officials should revisit that clause next time they bargain the contract. Giving the union virtual veto power over volunteer work isn’t in the district’s best interests.

That said, the clause doesn’t appear to be the real source of volunteers’ frustrations in this case. The problem was abysmal communication. The school district had valid concerns with the scope of proposed work, concerns that would have been raised with or without a union contract.

For example, volunteers wanted to rent a large brush cutter to clear a hillside. The district – and by extension, taxpayers – would have been liable for any damage or injuries caused by the machinery. Just try to get a risk manager to bless that arrangement.

Volunteers also wanted to do some painting at the school. That sounds harmless enough, but the district has had to redo multiple painting projects in the past because well-meaning volunteers didn’t do the job correctly.

District officials say they routinely prohibit volunteers from painting school property or operating machinery. But no one told the Comcast team that – at least not until last week after it had already mustered an army of community-minded folks to spruce up Fawcett.

Many efforts to assist Tacoma schools go off without a hitch, but when one ends with volunteers feeling rebuked and frustrated, it sends a powerful message to community members about where they should invest their time – or not.

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