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Parents are hoping to install more equipment at Wilson Elementary but have found the process frustrating so far, according to a five-page complaint filed Sept. 6. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]

Problems on the playground

Getting new playground equipment has been anything but fun and games between Wilson Elementary School parents and the Medford School District.

Molly Mitton and Tracy Deal, board members of the Wilson Parent-Teacher Organization, filed a complaint in September alleging two district employees berated PTO members during meetings and gave unclear and discriminatory reasons why the members could not select certain pieces of equipment, including that Wilson's location is more crime-prone than other schools.

An investigation by the district's human resources department concluded the parents' allegations of discriminatory and unprofessional behavior were unfounded, but did agree, in part, that policies for PTOs to follow while installing playground equipment were unclear.

Superintendent Brian Shumate issued a letter detailing his conclusions about the report to the parents on Wednesday.

Mitton said Friday she and Deal will appeal Shumate's dismissal of their allegations to the School Board.

"It seems that either the District endorses the unfortunate conduct of its facilities employees or that the District feels that we are liars and have presented a fictitious account of the meetings that transpired in our complaint," Mitton said in an email.

District spokeswoman Natalie Hurd said that witnesses interviewed during the district's investigation disputed the parents' claims about the employees' conduct.

"We had two objective sources and both had an assessment that Ron and Jeffrey were not at fault," she said.

The district recently posted a two-page document to its website advising PTOs undertaking playground installation on how to approach the process.

Brad Earl, chief operating officer and interim human resources director, said the addition of guidelines may ward off situations like what arose between the Wilson parents and district employees, which he called "contentious."

"It should be exciting for neighborhoods to rally around a school," he said. "It’s unfortunate that it went that way."

The PTO raised $24,000 to pay for new equipment and selected pieces from catalogues that the complaint said were provided by district grounds supervisor Jeffrey Morejohn. When Morejohn rejected the choices, the PTO board and then-Principal Gerry Flock met with him to discover what equipment would be acceptable. The five-page complaint attributes several lengthy quotes to Morejohn, including that he characterized their choices as “bully magnets,” “gangbanger havens” and “love nests.”

Morejohn's supervisor, Director of Facilities Ron Havniear, became involved when the parents and Flock tried again to pick items, this time from a catalogue in which Havniear apparently had circled approved items. A second meeting, this time including Havniear and a representative from the playground company, also dissolved, according to the complaint. The district employees told parents Wilson couldn’t have the same equipment as other schools because it's in a neighborhood with higher crime rates, Mitton and Deal allege.

"Mr. Havniear demanded that Wilson PTO accept liability for any negative outcomes that might result from use of this equipment," the complaint said, adding that "Havniear was nearly yelling at this point."

Both Morejohn and Havniear initially declined to be interviewed about the complaint, directing questions to Hurd. She said witnesses interviewed in the district's investigation said the parents provoked the district employees.

"I’ve worked with both Ron and Jeffrey for years and I find them both to be extremely professional and dedicated to this organization and most of all caring about the safety and well-being of kids in this district," Hurd said.

The parents said similar items to what they chose are in place at other playgrounds in the district — the complaint lists 24 examples at nine schools. Hurd and Earl said, however, that playground safety experts (Morejohn is a certified playground safety inspector) would not approve that type of equipment at any playground anymore based on updated safety standards. The district only removes such equipment if it becomes "overly problematic," the new guidelines say.

"The successful projects are the ones where the principal brings in field level experts who set the standards for playgrounds," Earl said. He and Hurd said that eight such projects have occurred in recent years.

Shumate's letter to Mitton and Deal offered no details as to why their allegations of discrimination and unprofessional conduct were "not founded." It was mailed 70 days after Mitton and Deal first filed their complaint on Sept. 6.

Mitton said she felt "extremely disappointed and disheartened with how long this process has taken and with the findings."

She said she and Deal will submit a formal appeal to the School Board on Monday. The board can hold a public hearing or one closed to the public if eligible under Oregon law, or choose not to hear the appeal.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at 541-776-4497 or ktornay@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ka_tornay.

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