Wichita Center to ‘remain a public service’ despite Clackamas County’s termination

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Clackamas County officials recently sent notice to the North Clackamas School District that NCSD’s social services building would no longer be able to operate through an agreement with the county.

County officials blindsided both NCSD and the county’s parks advisory board in exercising its right to terminate the agreement with 180 days’ notice. Wichita Center houses a food pantry, clothing closet, toiletry essentials, and access to a variety of partner agencies serving youth and families.

“That (notice) effectively means that our ability to provide community services out of the Wichita location will end on June 30, 2024,” Assistant NCSD Superintendent Cindy Detchon wrote in a Jan. 26 letter to community members.

County officials made the decision to terminate the lease without any input from the parks advisory board. Resignations of both the advisory board’s chair and vice-chair soon followed the county’s Dec. 19 announcement.

“The current political climate and decisions that have been made have made it difficult for me, as a community member, taxpayer, and parks and recreation professional to make a difference,” former Parks Advisory Board Chair Ryan Stee wrote in a Dec. 20 resignation letter. “I do not see my time and recommendations being used by our officials to better our community.”

Jeanette DeCastro, who took over as chair of the parks advisory board on Jan. 10, said that it wasn’t just the Wichita Center announcement that has taken citizens by surprise. Acting Parks District Director Cindy Becker issued a “mea culpa” on behalf of the district that “should have had interactive dialogue last fall” with its advisory board regarding funding sources and the 2024-25 budgeting process.

DeCastro said that she was also flabbergasted to hear that the then-director of the parks district, Michael Bork, was dismissed in November after the county decided it “was going in a different direction.”

Bork declined to comment for this story, and DeCastro said that she heard Bork’s dismissal wasn’t performance related. DeCastro and other parks advisory board members didn’t hear of his dismissal from county officials until about a week after it happened.

“I can understand why personnel matters are tricky, but the county needs to figure out whether they value our input,” DeCastro said. “When that ‘different direction’ was never shared with us, that left us scratching our heads.”

Several county commissioners attending the recent parks advisory meeting spoke about the Wichita decision and potentially handing over control of the district to locally elected officials. County commissioners are elected countywide but make decisions for the parks district serving about 105,000 residents; only one of the five county commissioners lives in the parks district.

County Commissioner Ben West said that the commission and parks advisory board members “share the concern of displacing services to the most vulnerable.” But commissioners decided that Wichita services for families in need were outside of the district’s core mission of providing parks and recreation.

Katie Scott, the former vice-chair of the District Advisory Committee, said she looked forward to working to improve the community in other ways after seeing how little regard the county board seemed to have for citizen voices.

“Disagreement between the DAC and board is seemingly excused by saying members of the DAC do not understand, haven’t read the right documents, or don’t speak as representatives for the community. If our input is disregarded at a whim, there is no power in the DAC and this shows little respect for the work we do as volunteers for this district,” Scott wrote.

Commissioner Paul Savas, the only county board member who lives within the parks district, said that the board is doing its best to get through “a lot of preexisting problems.” Savas said that he’d like to wait to relinquish control to a locally elected parks board until the district is on stronger financial footing.

Savas said that the parks district is facing future financial challenges after losing some of its tax base from Happy Valley, which became its own parks provider in 2020. Another factor Savas saw in the parks district’s potential financial instability was the district’s 2018 decision to trade properties that now need expensive repairs with the school district, so he supports negotiations to potentially sell them back.

Milwaukie Mayor Lisa Batey, who is also a member of the parks advisory board, said that the county took her by surprise in announcing possible sales of Wichita and the former Clackamas Elementary School, which is now being rented to the Cascade Heights Public Charter School.

“That really came as a complete shock out of nowhere on the eve of the Christmas holidays,” Batey said.

Savas and Batey then discussed whether it made sense to retain the Clackamas Elementary property as a potential community center site, given its location near Interstate 205.

During the public meeting, Savas said that county commissioners met in executive session to discuss potential sale of Wichita back to the school district, which sent a letter of interest in purchasing the property to the county. School district leaders confirmed that they have been working on potential avenues to keep Wichita services going.

As part of the 2018 intergovernmental agreement, Detchon wrote, Clackamas County purchased the Wichita with a long-term goal of continuing to provide social services, trading free field and gym use for the parks district, exchanging the school district’s use of the Wichita building.

“District leadership recently met with the county administration, and we both agreed to engage in a collaborative process to ensure that the programs at Wichita remain a public service for our families. We will be meeting with them multiple times over the next several weeks to discuss our options,” Detchon wrote.

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