Does new football field pose safety risk?

Washougal teacher, district disagree over source of sharp debris found on Jemtegaard Middle School field funded by $57 million construction bond

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Washougal School District facilities manager Joe Steinbrenner shows a soils analysis document. It shows that the district imported 18 inches of engineered topsoil to install at the new football field at Jemtegaard Middle School in Washougal. Steinbrenner says debris found on the new field is from this topsoil, not from the demolished middle school, which lies underneath the field's eastern edges. (Photos by Wayne Havrelly/Post-Record)

A Washougal middle school teacher and former football coach is worried that a new Washougal youth football field, constructed near the newly opened Jemtegaard Middle School (JMS) and part of a $57 million Washougal School District (WSD) capital improvements bond passed by voters in 2016, may pose a serious safety hazard.

Brett Cox, an eighth grade science teacher at JMS, said he grew concerned about the field after spotting something odd on a bright, sunny day.

“I was looking at the new field and noticed it was literally glittering in the sunlight, so I start going out there and found shards of glass and plastic from thumbnail size to pinky size,” Cox said.

Cox, who has worked for WSD for more than 20 years, shared his discovery with his principal David Cooke and Washougal School District’s facilities manager Joe Steinbrenner the very next day.

He said both administrators told him they were unaware of any problem with sharp debris on the field, but would look into it.

“Mr. Steinbrenner has his guys go look at it and then (they) come back with double handfuls of plastic and garbage and tell me it’s all taken care of,” Cox said.

Not quite convinced that the problem had been solved, the concerned teacher returned to the field on June 16 and collected several more handfuls of mostly sharp plastic pieces, along with a few shards of glass and material Cox believed to be fragments from the old Jemtegaard Middle School, which was demolished last summer and lies beneath part of the newly constructed, but not yet opened, football field.

“Part of this football field is built on the rubble of where the old school is, and so they took the rubble and ground it up, like this piece right here, which is a broken-up brick from the old school,” Cox said, holding up a piece of debris he said he found on the football field.

On June 22, Cox met with The Post-Record at the football field and spotted four pieces of sharp plastic and two pieces of clay material, which could have come from ground-up bricks.

“My concerns are that it’s still there,” Cox said of the sharp debris on the field.

“They haven’t removed it, and they haven’t covered it with enough material, so it’s going to just come right back up through the dirt.”

District: debris is from imported topsoil, not school demolition

Steinbrenner, the school district’s facilities manager, said he doubts the debris is connected to the former Jemtegaard middle school’s deconstruction.

When that school was knocked down, Steinbrenner said, demolition crews ran the material through a grinder and used the material as baserock for the new road leading into the current JMS. The material was not used to construct the football field.

The field does sit on what used to be the old middle school’s parking lot, Steinbrenner said, but the school itself sat on the east end of the football field.

Cox argues that the east end of the field, located over the former school site, is where he found most of the debris, but Steinbrenner said he is confident any debris the teacher found is from topsoil brought in to construct the field.

“It’s from wherever they manufactured the topsoil from — absolutely,” Steinbrenner said. “This is not stuff from the old school.”

According to the soil analysis from the construction project, 18 inches of engineered topsoil was put onto the playing field over a big pit. Nearly 1,800 cubic yards of topsoil was brought in prior to planting the grass in December 2017.

“All the topsoil was run through a screen, so any material that was (harmful) would be below the screen size,” Steinbrenner said.

The school district hopes to have the football field ready by Aug. 15, and is still under contract with the landscape contractor through the end of July.

“This is really their (the landscapers’) baby until they get this completely done and established,” Steinbrenner said.

The district expects that, by the time the field opens for play, it will have another 3-inch layer of thick grass. Landscapers are on-site, working on the field several times a week and will pick up anything they see that is not acceptable, according to district officials.

“I’m not aware of any outstanding issues with the field,” Steinbrenner said.

Cox, who hopes to eventually return to coaching football at JMS, said he feels the district still hasn’t done enough to ease his concerns about students’ safety.

“It’s bothering me,” Cox said. “I won’t coach with the field in this condition, and I won’t let my own kids play on this field. I have a lot of experience with football, and this situation isn’t good.”