A turn of the head toward the playground at Medical Lake Elementary School last spring left David Jorgenson open-mouthed.
There was his third-grade son at recess, running and laughing. But Jorgenson’s eyes quickly fixed on the other side of the blacktop, where 10 men were grooming the school’s baseball field.
An inmate work crew.
Outraged, the parent later demanded answers from the Medical Lake School Board.
Why were convicted criminals on school grounds, so close to impressionable children?
On Tuesday night, Jorgenson and other concerned parents got answers - and a school board promise to stop the inmate work program during school hours.
“We are not sitting here just blindly defending” work programs, said district Superintendent Neal Powell. “We do not have to do these. We were just trying to do a public service. We don’t use them very much.”
About 15 parents filed into the meeting room to ensure their concerns were addressed.
Jorgenson couldn’t believe school officials ever thought felons from nearby Pine Lodge Pre-Release Center, a state prison, would be good candidates for work in and around local schools.
“As a parent, this is a problem,” he said. “Nobody even knew this was happening.
“This is a school. It should be a safe haven. I don’t care if they are shoplifters, they shouldn’t be out there.”
Medical Lake resident Bryan Palmer echoed Jorgenson’s complaints.
“These are our children. We’re concerned about them,” he said. “We consider this jeopardizing their safety.”
The inmates work for free, saving the district $3,000 to $5,000 a year for the last five years. The 10-man crews tend to everything from broken bleachers and basketball hoops to striping and grooming ball fields.
Powell insists the program operates under strict guidelines. Inmates, who wear ordinary clothing, are prohibited from having any contact with kids, and they are supervised. No sex offenders or violent inmates can work on crews.
But Pine Lodge officials conceded Tuesday that although the work crews are supervised, they could not guarantee the safety of the children.
“How many people have walked away from work crews around here?” Jorgenson asked prison officials. “If the answer is one, it’s too many.”
There is plenty of work for crews in town without the school jobs, said Les Risen, who oversees the crews. But working for local schools and parks gives inmates valuable job skills they will soon need, he said.
With little comment, the school board agreed to the compromise. Next year, inmates will work at Medical Lake schools when children are not there. Prisoners are allowed on campus only early in the morning before classes, on weekends and during school vacations.
“The safety of our students is primary,” Powell said. “This is not a (financial) survival issue for the district.
“We want out parents to know that when they bring their kids to school, they’re in a safe place.”