Volunteers at a weekend work party at Fawcett Elementary School in East Tacoma came prepared to get their hands dirty.
But some say they felt like they were working with one grubby hand tied behind their backs last weekend due to school district and union rules.
“There was a lot of work that could have been done, but wasn’t,” said Ron Joslin, whose daughter is a third-grader at the school.
He and other parents complain that district officials scaled back the scope of work planned by several dozen parents working with more than 100 volunteers from Comcast.
“Somebody from the school district said it would take away union jobs,” said Tiesha Williams, one of the parents who turned out Saturday. District and union officials acknowledge that the project list was narrowed at their request. But they say there are good reasons.
Tacoma Public Schools spokesman Dan Voelpel said the district appreciates volunteer efforts to help make schools better, but there’s a protocol for volunteer cleanups. First, volunteers must fill out a form detailing what the work party plans to do.
“Our buildings and grounds supervisory staff need to review it to make sure that what people want to do is safe and up to school standards,” Voelpel said. “And we have to, by union contract, notify the unions affected. They can determine if the work being performed substantially takes away from union labor. They can object to the work proposed.”
Mark Martinez, executive secretary for the Pierce County Building and Construction Trades Council, put it this way: “Sometimes people don’t appreciate our craft.”
His union represents an estimated 60 Tacoma schools employees.
Martinez said issues can include things like prep work for areas to be painted or the use of mechanical equipment that’s better suited to full-time employees. And he said it’s his job to ensure that volunteers don’t supplant his members’ livelihoods.
Parents say one of the vetoed Fawcett projects would have removed overgrown bushes that block views of the street from the school.
School employees can’t see who is approaching the building. And that worries parents.
The overgrowth also interferes with drivers pulling in and out of school property. Joslin said the last time the bushes were trimmed back – by parents – was a year ago.
“If it’s somebody’s job, then they’re paying them to do nothing because it hasn’t been done,” he added.
Other proposed projects that didn’t happen include painting a Fawcett Falcons mascot on a school wall and spreading 40 yards of beauty bark on school playgrounds and elsewhere.
Two days before the volunteers were scheduled to go to work, school and union officials met to hammer out which projects would be approved.
Comcast spokesman Walter Neary said his group had no objection to following school district rules.
“This is volunteering,” he said. “It’s supposed to be collaborative and cooperative.”
More than 2,000 Comcast employees, who were part of a company effort dubbed Comcast Cares, helped spruce up schools around the state Saturday. Comcast Cares also turned out to work at Puyallup High School. Asked if similar issues arose there, Neary said he didn’t know what kind of decision-making process was used.
Martinez said the bush removal at Fawcett would have required the use of specialized equipment that was better handled by school employees. Fawcett Principal Zeek Edmond said a request to remove the bushes has been submitted to the school district.
Voelpel said school maintenance representatives expressed concern about the proposed painting projects, which included not only the mascot but also some painting of classrooms and basketball backboards.
He said part of their concern arose due to union contracts and part stemmed from past experiences at other schools in which volunteer paint jobs had to be re-done.
He also said school maintenance workers asked the volunteers to scale back the amount of beauty bark applied because too much bark can wash onto sidewalks during heavy rains.
While some parents were disappointed they weren’t allowed to accomplish more Saturday, nearly everyone interviewed for this story felt good about what they did.
They spread beauty bark and gravel. They planted a tree in memory of a school employee who died over the summer. Comcast donated new nets for playground basketball hoops and new tetherball equipment.
All in all, Fawcett looks better as a result of the volunteers’ hard work.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635