Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Friday, March 15 @ 1:05 p.m. / Community, Education, Youth

Smith River School Students Spearhead Field Renovation Project; Progress Includes Raising $3,000, Securing Donation Promises and Volunteer Help

Smith River School students pitched a project proposal to renovate an athletic field that's riddled with gopher-produced mounds and holes. | Courtesy Smith River School student government

Smith River School’s student government found a welcome audience Thursday when they asked Del Norte Unified School District trustees for help renovating their athletic field.

They outlined the problem — a soccer field riddled with 3-4-inch gopher holes and gopher mounds and uneven ground leading to injury — told trustees they’ve raised nearly $3,000 toward the cost of the project, secured donation promises from local agricultural producers and businesses and hoped to use volunteers to do the renovation.

Students also presented trustees with a $106,000 cost estimate for supplies, a list of needed materials, and a project timeline. They hope to break ground on April 19 and complete the project when the new school year starts on Aug. 30.

“Here are some potential benefits for this project: We create positive news in the community,” said Dylan Walkley, the school’s student body president. “We could reduce injuries and liability. And, finally, with gopher wire we are thinking long term. With that vision, we can eventually host soccer tournaments that will boost community business similar to the Jaycees. We hope to get your approval to proceed.”

DNUSD trustees urged the students to proceed with their project, but they didn’t pledge any funding for it. They also noted that the athletic fields at the district’s other schools are also in bad shape.

Michael Greer, district 5 representative who met with the students in January, told his colleagues that he walked the field at Smith River School and the students’ description of its condition was an understatement. He just wasn’t sure “if the funding and the timeline can get together,” particularly since the State of California is projecting a deficit in the billions of dollars.

“What you’ve shown already is super,” Greer said. “I don’t think there’s anybody on the board who would disagree that we need to do it, and you’re taking that initial step to go ahead and let’s get this thing going. I want you to keep pushing us. We need to make sure that we can help you.”

Superintendent Jeff Harris, who also met with the students, was a bit more encouraging.

“Not only have you guys been impressive throughout all of your presentations — because I know you’ve done a lot — I have to give a chunk of thanks to Mr. Endert for supporting you and helping you get here,” Harris said Thursday, referring to the students’ advisor Marcus Endert. “This is not a small undertaking. This is big, and I think we talked when we met back in January or February, it could be a model for some other things around the district.”

In addition to presenting their project to Greer and Harris ahead of Thursday’s DNUSD meeting, the students met with Joshua McCubbin, the district’s director of maintenance and operations; Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Tom Kissinger; and representatives from True North Organizing Network’s Promise Neighborhood Grants program.

The student group also secured support from True North as well as agricultural producers United Lily Growers, Dahlstrom & Watt and Palmer Westbrook, which offered the use of their equipment to complete the project.

“In return, we will pay for the electricity to pipe well water to irrigate the sod,” Augustus told trustees. “Community volunteers [will] till and level the field, lay down gopher wire, cover it with three inches of topsoil and then lay down sod.”

Volunteers would be supervised by DNUSD maintenance and operations staff, Augustus said.

According to Endert, True North Organizing Committee was willing to help Smith River School renovate its athletic field. But they wanted to see the district’s financial commitment to the project, he said.

Endert noted that the original calculation for supply costs was about $126,000 for the 50,000 square-foot field. But since those estimates are based on retail prices, the actual cost might be closer to $76,000.

On Thursday, Endert told trustees that in addition to getting help from United Lily Growers, Dahlstrom and Watt and Palmer Westbrook, Harmony Sod, which supplies Home Depot, offered a 50 percent discount. They also offered free shipping from their business in Sacramento, Endert said.

Because the three local agricultural producers are offering the use of equipment DNUSD doesn’t have there should be no issues using volunteers, according to Endert. He said this was a way to work around contract issues with the district’s employees’ union.

“As far as top soil goes, we made a grant request before the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation and we’re scheduled to speak before their Council on April 11,” he said. “We also heard they may have topsoil available, so if they’re able to donate topsoil, that would be a donation value of about $20,000.”

Joey Borges, Del Norte County District 4 supervisor, also pledged his support for the field renovation project, as did Rob Miller, of Dahlstrom & Watt.

“This is an amazing project,” Miller said, adding that the timeline is ambitious. “It’s pretty impressive what they decided they want to try to get accomplished and so I think they’ll be successful. I think they’re really pushing hard to get it and use it as a pilot project to fix the other soccer fields in the other grade schools around town.”
Endert also presented DNUSD trustees with statistics, saying that about 14.8 percent of the number of accidents reported over the last three years are due to gopher holes or gopher mounds.

Speaking with the Wild Rivers Outpost via Messenger on Friday, Endert broke those statistics down further: In the 2021-22 school year, out of eight reported accidents, one was attributed to gophers. In 2022-23, out of 10 reported accidents, one was attributed to gophers. And, so far this year, out of nine reported accidents, two are due to gophers.

“We are only on about day 130 of the school year,” he told the Outpost, adding that the most serious injuries are sprained ankles. “The problem is only getting worse each year.”

Endert said his students’ next step will be continuing their fundraising efforts for the project as well as meeting with the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Tribal Council. He noted that the tribe’s Council meeting is the same day as DNUSD’s April 11 Board of Trustee meeting, which will be held at Smith River School.

“We hope to have good news and show up en masse,” Endert said. “And then invite them to the groundbreaking on April 19, that is the Friday before Earth Day. We will have that ceremony and keep on with our timeline.”


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