Right now, the only all-weather running track in Lodi is closed to everyone who isn’t a physical education student or on a sports team at Tokay High School.
But in response to urging by several community members, the Lodi Unified School District board of trustees discussed the possibility of reopening the Tokay High track and field area to the public on a limited basis.
The track has been open to the neighborhood off and on since at least the 1980s. Neighbors head to the school to walk, jog or play handball and tennis on the courts.
In early June, a track team from Stockton held an unscheduled track meet at Tokay High without the district’s knowledge or approval, said Art Hand, assistant superintendent of facilities and planning. In response, the five gates leading to the track were locked up and all public access was blocked.
Richard Hanner, an avid user of the track and editor of the Lodi News-Sentinel, approached the board with his concerns about the closed track several weeks ago. Hanner sees the track as a kind of health center for the community, especially among those who cannot afford a gym membership to exercise.
“The track is a factory of social capital,” Hanner said.
Opening the track to the public on a limited basis should be possible, he added.
Board members considered the question as a balancing act.
“How do we welcome the public but protect our facilities for students first?” asked Ron Heberle, board president.
Those in favor of keeping the track closed cited concerns about vandalism and unnecessary wear and tear on an expensive surface. Bikes and strollers cause the most damage, they said.
Then there’s the issue of potential litigation. While injuries leading to lawsuits are one concern, the larger problem is the possibility of students interacting with non-students while the district is responsible for their safety.
“The law is clear in that we are not to allow students and non-student adults to intermingle without supervision,” said Tim Hern, chief business officer. “We’re not a city. We’re not running a park. We have a charge to keep our students safe.”
All visitors to a school campus must be fingerprinted and cleared before they can be around students. If they are not fingerprinted, they must be accompanied by district staff at all times.
Before Jeff Johnston was president of the Lodi teachers union, he was a track coach and athletic director at Tokay High. He said the track is in almost constant daily use from the end of the school day until dusk throughout the academic year, save for the colder months of November and December, and should be reserved for student use to reduce wear and tear.
“Our schools aren’t health clubs,” Johnston said. “They’re places of learning and enrichment for our students.”
John Hunt, a counselor at Tokay High and former track coach, was in favor of opening the track on a limited basis. He says he has watched the track’s development from a dirt trail riddled with potholes to the expensive all-weather track surface that is the envy of other high schools.
“Kids will get in there one way or the other. There could be a very good agreement. We have a good relationship with the public, and I don’t want to see it jeopardized,” he said.
There was no final decision on Tuesday. The board created a committee to come up with at least two possible resolutions for the board to consider at a future meeting. One will address a solution to open the track on a limited weekday evening basis. The other will look at how to open the track to the public on weekends and when school is not in session.
Trustees Joe Nava, Ralph Womack and George Neely are on the committee, which also includes district staff and members of the public.