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Lincoln School field placed back on district maintenance plan

A petition to transform Lincoln School field into a city park had gathered more than 200 signatures as of Wednesday, according to Melissa Mitchell-Hooge, petition organizer and member of Friends of Lincoln Park.

Since Lincoln Elementary School closed in 2005, the question of what to do with the field on Beach Street has brought in stakeholders from the Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission, the citizen group Friends of Lincoln Park, and the current property owner, Ashland School District.

The petition cites a neglected soccer field, high neighborhood use of the park in an underserved area, and existing support from 64 businesses among the factors in support of a sale to the city.

“The Ashland Parks Department must be permitted to purchase the school park so that they can rehabilitate the soccer field, make it safe for the community’s use, update the irrigation system, and resume the proper and appropriate care of this important community asset,” the petition says.

Ashland School District Superintendent Samuel Bogdanove said the district is not interested in selling Lincoln field to the city. Due to its location adjacent to district offices, Ashland High School and Southern Oregon University, future beneficial uses of the property call for continued retention, he said.

“We have to consider the long-range interests of kids,” Bogdanove said. “We don’t have any plans to deny the community use for it, but we also know that needs can change over time and certainly want to keep the best interests of future generations of Ashland students — our opportunities open for them.”

The district agreed to recent water curtailment requests from the city due to diminished use of the field for programs, he said.

Bogdanove said the property remains open for responsible community use and will be integrated into maintenance plans alongside all other school district fields going forward. The field is slated to be reseeded and regraded in the spring, he said.

“Out of the amount of interest in it, we’re going to put it back on a regular maintenance schedule,” Bogdanove said.

According to an Ashland school board statement issued Jan. 21, the Lincoln School playground and greenspace has been accessible to the public outside of school hours since 1926. After the school closed in 2005, high school alternative programs, district offices and temporarily, John Muir Outdoor School, have taken up use of the space.

Over the 2015-2016 school year, a facilities committee assessed school district properties, including Lincoln, and recommended the school board retain ownership, according to the statement — the decision was reaffirmed at a December 2020 meeting of the school board.

“The school district will continue to own and maintain the school building and property for the foreseeable future in the best interest of Ashland students and the schools,” the statement said. “When not in use for school sports, during summers and when the city has asked us to curtail water usage, the field will remain dry but may still be utilized.”

Jennifer Margulis, a member of Friends of Lincoln Park and mother of four children, lives four blocks from Lincoln School. For her family, the field has been a familiar spot for pick-up basketball games, playing Fish Out of Water with her youngest daughter and daily walks.

Margulis said closing elementary schools due to low enrollment numbers can become a self-fulfilling prophecy — deterring young families from setting roots in Ashland. In support of providing green spaces for children especially, she said, the Lincoln field is in desperate need of maintenance.

“What happens with the park is a community issue,” Margulis said. “We are blessed to live in a town where people love to do things outside, care deeply about the environment and want to have open spaces and green spaces. We also have had a problem in our town of not supporting young families as much as I think we should.”

Friends of Lincoln Park want the property turned over to Ashland Parks and Recreation for continual upkeep, after witnessing a perceived shortfall in attention from the district over the past 15 years.

For Margulis, the question is not whether the money exists to see the project come to life, but how funds are prioritized. Friends of Lincoln Park favor preserving open spaces to draw in young families and encourage overall community health, she said.

“We need to take a park that has been neglected, where people are not picking up their dog poo, where the trees have almost died, and turn it into a vibrant and thriving space for the community,” Margulis said. “We have been trying to make this happen for so long. The time is now.”

When Lincoln and Briscoe schools closed in 2004 and 2005, residents using the school greenspaces as neighborhood parks faced the possibility that those open spaces would be sold or left unmaintained, said Mike Gardiner, Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission chair.

APRC purchased the Briscoe school playground and adjoining space in 2018 for $500,000. The city purchased the remainder of the property for $1.54 million, solving one neighborhood park opportunity, Gardiner said.

APRC staff reviewed cost estimates for transforming Lincoln School field into a park facility, and the result was outside the budget, despite being identified as a potential neighborhood park in an area that needs one, he said.

“When APRC looks at new opportunities for parks and open space we must always look at the short-term costs of design and/or rehab and the long-term costs of purchase and, most importantly, maintenance,” Gardiner said. “Currently, APRC does not have adequate funds available or allocated for this project.”

Securing an open space in an underserved part of town would satisfy the city’s goal to have a city park within one-quarter mile of every Ashland resident, Gardiner said. However, “potentially facing catastrophic budget reductions,” he said the funds don’t exist to see that goal to fruition this biennium.

Gardiner said though the public may seek a similar resolution as with Briscoe, the properties are not identical. Budget outlook indicates such project funds may not surface for APRC to buy, and ASD is not currently willing to sell, he said.

Gardiner said ASD’s disinterest in selling and budget projections do not nullify the possibility of working out a “mutual agreement for the benefit of the citizens of Ashland,” but no recent conversations have occurred between the entities to direct movement on the issue.

Mitchell-Hooge repeated a call for a joint meeting between the school board, APRC and the public by the end of the year to discuss creative options for identifying funding for the project.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497 and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.

Jamie Lusch / ashland TidingsLincoln School fields in Ashland.