Peace portrait raises a few hackles

To the hundreds of islanders who assembled at the high school football field, the Portrait for Peace was an expression of community sentiment against going to war with Iraq.

But for others, the assembly was an attack on a United States president doing what they believe right and necessary to protect the nation’s interests.

And they are unhappy with what they see as an endorsement of the anti-war position from the school district, which provided a site for the event, and the fire department, which lent its ladder truck to the undertaking.

“I’m really concerned about the use of the school property for political purposes,” said islander Rich Schmidt, who said he has made inquiries with the state Attorney General’s office.

“This seems to have the tacit if not the active approval of the school district,” Schmidt said, “but not everybody believes the way this group does.”

The fire department has also gotten questions about the propriety of using its ladder truck to provide an aerial platform for photographer Joel Sackett.

In hindsight, it’s a split decision. The school district says it did the right thing, but the fire department says it may have erred.

“The community is encouraged to use school property as long as the use is for a lawful purpose,” said Bruce Colley, school district executive director for administrative services.

“We rent to a variety of groups, including political parties and church groups. That doesn’t mean we endorse their position.”

Colley pointed to written district policy that puts facility users into four groups. At one end of the spectrum are school-related or school-sponsored users, who may use the facilities for free, but must pay the actual cost of that use, such as the cost of custodial help.

At the other end of the spectrum are profit-making or non-community organizations, which pay a more significant charge.

Colley said he believes the peace-portrait organizers would fit into the category of non-profit community-based groups, defined as folks who pay school-district taxes, but whose function is not school-related.

“So long as what they are doing is lawful, we don’t discriminate on the basis of their views,” Colley said.

Colley said the event organizers filled out the proper paperwork. School officials said the group paid a $50 field-rental fee and an estimated $70 in custodial overtime.

“We don’t make money off renting the facilities, but we do need to pay for maintenance,” Colley said. “The cost of wear and tear to the facility for that event would have been minimal.”

Tacit support?

Schmidt said he fears the district was accommodating to the peace-portrait group only because the school board members hold similar political views.

Not so, said board member Bruce Weiland.

“I didn’t even know about this in advance,” Weiland said. “I think the access issue is a matter of law, not a matter of our policy.”

Schmidt agrees, to a point.

“I was surprised to find out when I talked to the state Office of Public Instruction that school districts may choose whether or not to make facilities available to political groups, but that if they do, they can’t discriminate,” he said. “I wonder if they’ve thought that through – that they would have to allow a group with very different political views to use the facility.”

Island photographer Joel Sackett asked for the ladder truck because the cherry-picker he had arranged was off the island and had “a really tiny basket.”

“I asked if (the fire department) could help, and they agreed,” Sackett said.

Fire district executive director Ken Guy said that allowing use of the fire truck was probably ill-advised.

“If a community event ties in with training that we would have to do anyway, we like to participate and let at least a segment of the community see what it’s getting for its tax money,” Guy said, citing the department’s participation in the Fourth of July parade as an example.

While he originally envisioned the peace portrait as a similar “community event,” he has since changed his mind.

“In hindsight, we need to be more careful that it is really a political event and not a political statement,” Guy said. “If it is a political statement, we shouldn’t use tax dollars for it.”

Although the fire department was not compensated for the use of the truck, Guy said the actual cost to the department was minimal, because the personnel involved were on duty anyway.

Calls were monitored during the two hours that the ladder truck was out of the station, and both the truck and personnel would have been recalled quickly in case of need.

Guy said the department is re-examining some of its assumptions about what is appropriate and what isn’t.

“We need to look at things like our Christmas truck,” he said, referring to the tradition of driving a truck playing holiday carols through island neighborhoods.

“Is that a community event, or is it promoting a particular religious viewpoint?” he asked

“What it will come down to is a test of reasonableness. I don’t think we can justify the peace-portrait incident, but we can learn from it.”

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