Public Comment

Neighbors Are Asking: "WTF MLK?"
An Open Letter to Berkeley School District Officials

Gar Smith
Friday April 17, 2015 - 11:41:00 AM
Gar Smith
Gar Smith

Dear Officials:

I have a series of questions regarding ground rules and operations at the Martin Luther King Middle School track.

As a neighbor and a runner, I understand that the track is to be closed the pubic between school hours — 9AM to 6PM. (Even though the school's coaches have generously invited runners onto the field before 5PM, since "we're generally done by 4:45.")

Why, then, were three of the five entry points to the track padlocked at the beginning of this week?

Of the four metal-gated entryways, only the Hopkins Street gate remained unlocked and open to the public. Ah, but that was yesterday.

This morning (April 16), to the surprise, dismay and rage of scores of runners and walkers—many of them middle-aged and seniors—even the Hopkins gate was chained and bolted shut. 

One trim, white-haired would-be runner attempted without success to squeeze between the narrow opening of the chained gate and wound up temporarily trapped. After some strained jokes about calling 911 for the "jaws of life," he was able to extract himself. Others grimaced, grabbed the gate and shook it (to no avail). Some regular track users were forced to climb over the rib-cage-high metal fence that surrounds the field. (I exercised this option and, after my run, I wound up tearing my pants and ripping a bloody hole in a finger as I climbed back over the metalwork. 

In the past, runners who attempted a pre-dinner jog at 5PM have been intercepted by the school principal and other officials. The track needs to be closed until 6PM, school authorities explained, to protect the students from the possibility of "serial killers" on the loose. 

It would seem that whoever is responsible for transforming the track from a shared public resource into a semi-enclosed fortress is doing a disservice to the neighbors who pay taxes to support the school system. Worse, they now are exposing these neighbors to potentially crippling risks of injuries from accidental falls as they try to climb over the metal fences. 

If the goal of these lock-downs is to "secure" the campus, they are a demonstrable failure. 

The MLK campus remains easily accessible from the adjacent park/playground area on Hopkins Street. Access to the school remains wide open at the top of a flight of wooden stairs. And, on the Rose Street side, there is a metal sign next to an open gate that declares that this MLK entrance is "to be locked in the open position" during school hours

If the lockdown is not intended to "secure" the campus, it begins to look as if the intended purpose is really to extend dominion over the track. 

If so, why is the school targeting perambulating neighbors for exclusion? 

This morning, all four of the public's gateways to the track were bolted shut. Ironically, this means that now, the only way to safely reach the track area is to walk onto the campus and stroll past the buildings while you make your way to the paved road that slopes down to the southeast corner of the running lanes. 

So, this strange new arrangement compels non-students to first enter the school grounds before they can embark on their "daily rounds." 

And there's another problem with The Lockdown. The school district appears to be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. There is a path that runs from the track up a gently sloping hill to the open schoolyard. The gate to that path is now locked. The lock hangs about five feet to the left of a metal sign. That sign clearly designates that the path is to be reserved for people with handicaps. 

And there's another quandary. One that is environmental. 

With the state in the throes of a withering drought, why is it that MLK Jr. is one of the Bay Area's most egregious drought-flouters? 

I refer to the daily drenching of the grassy field (which has been surrounded by chain-link fencing for months). Not only has the School District not curtailed or cut back this extravagant and blatant wasting of water, it further squanders our dwindling drops by aiming the sprinklers so that they inundate the surrounding track as well as the grassy midfield. 

Every day, something like five percent of the water that's pumped into the air winds up drenching the track -- on all sides. On several occasions, I have been brought to a complete halt while running, blocked by sprinklers that send a literal wall of water gushing over the southwest portion of the track, spilling out across all six lanes! 

Fellow citizens, most of whom are letting their home lawns go brown, arrive at the track only to find it soaked to the point that you leave wet footprints on the surface as you run or amble from puddle to puddle. 

I recently observed that -- with the exception of two rare dry patches adding up to no more than 40 feet -- nearly the entire track had been doused with wasted water. 

And this is happening every day -- all to irrigate a field that, like the track, is blocked off from public use. 

Forget your "serial killers." I say it's time for Berkeley to crack down on its "serial spillers." And you can begin with the fenced-off oasis at MLK.