Hermiston High senior will have to wait at least another month to find out where their 2018 graduation will be, after a surprise motion at Monday night’s school board meeting led the board to postpone the decision until October.
The board voted 5-2 to revisit discussion of a new graduation venue at their October meeting, using the next few weeks to gather more input and look at other options. Mark Gomolski and Karen Sherman voted against postponing the decision.
The board released an agenda last week, stating that Interim Superintendent Tricia Mooney would recommend the board approve a motion to hold Hermiston High School’s June 2018 graduation at the Toyota Center in Kennewick, then revisit local venues for graduation in 2019. Board members had discussed the possibility at two previous meetings and issued a community survey. Several local options had also been discussed, including using the high school’s Kennison Field or the new EOTEC rodeo arena.
But as the motion was introduced at Monday night’s meeting, board member Jason Middleton introduced another.
“I’d like to allow the district more time to look at different options in regard to keeping it local and revisit this in October,” he said.
The motion was seconded by Dave Smith. Middleton said he was interested in seeing if they could get some in-kind donations from the community to help make the local options more cost effective.
Other board members appeared to be against postponing the decision.
Ginny Holthus said the biggest deterrent for people against the Toyota Center was emotional, but that line of thinking could obscure a decision that might be best for students.
“I think we need to embrace the fact that this is a big deal, and take the recommendation of the people who have done the research,” she said.
Mark Gomolski asked board members to consider the financial benefits of holding the event at the Toyota Center. At a previous meeting, Hermiston High School principal Tom Spoo reported that the Toyota Center would be the least expensive option. Renting the venue would cost between $3,500 and $4,000 per year, not including costs to transport students and staff. The district spends about $10,000 to hold graduation in the high school gymnasium.
“We just lost a bond issue because people are concerned about money,” Gomolski said. “Holding the graduation (at the Toyota Center) is the best bang for our buck.”
He said he liked Mooney’s suggestion to use the Toyota Center on a one-year, trial basis.
But Holthus, Middleton, Smith and board members Bonnie Luisi and Josh Goller all eventually voted to delay the decision.
Several questioned whether they would lose their opportunity to have graduation in the Toyota Center if they didn’t secure a spot this month.
Mooney said the district had not been given an official date by which they had to decide.
“They sent us a contract in June,” she said. “As the board wrestled with the decision, they said we could put it off. They haven’t said an absolute last date yet.”
But Sherman was still concerned the district might lose its chance to have graduation there.
“We have to make sure we have a venue,” she said. “If the Toyota Center doesn’t become available, we’ll make do, but people will be sitting with four tickets. It’s a no-win situation where we are at this point. And to be honest, I’m very frustrated.”
Earlier in the meeting, several people had discussed the graduation venue. Multiple community members addressed the board, asking them to consider keeping graduation local.
“If you do the Toyota Center, consider that there will be bridge construction, and a lot of families traveling that way,” said Tonya Hoff. “I realize it will cost a lot to keep it here. But I think it will be worth it.”
Only one commenter, Jack Bellinger, suggested that the district move the event to the Toyota Center, because weather during an outside ceremony would be too unpredictable.
“Though I’m a big supporter of EOTEC, and want to see events come there, I don’t recommend we have it there,” he said.
EOTEC’s interim manager, Nate Rivera, also spoke to the board. Rivera had met with Mooney to assess whether the facility could host a graduation.
“EOTEC wants to be a good long-term partner with the school district,” Rivera said. “We see a lot of future partnerships. But the reality is that this year, we have an interim supervisor, me, and one staff member.”
Rivera said EOTEC right now does not have the infrastructure to support an event as large as Hermiston High School’s graduation.
“Speakers, chairs, setup, teardown (at the rodeo) was all done by Farm-City Pro Rodeo (board and volunteers),” he said.
Rivera said in some ways, EOTEC would always have drawbacks as a graduation venue: weather and flooring.
“We can’t do anything about the weather,” he said. “And the flooring — it’s a dirt surface. There may be ADA issues.”
But Rivera said EOTEC hoped to have a long-term management solution in place for the facility by the end of the year.
“We want to be your partner,” he said. “We have a great facility up there. But if you’re waiting for that turnkey solution, we can’t offer that.”
Mooney said the decision was difficult for the district.
“The board really wants to make sure the community has the opportunity to be heard,” she said. “We all want to make the best decision for the students, and this isn’t a decision that will make everyone happy.”
Mooney said she was waiting for the board to give her direction on what those “next steps” would be.
Middleton also said he had not decided what the board should do to further vet the issue with the community. But he said he had heard enough comments that he was convinced the issue deserved more thought.
“I know the district has done a pretty detailed job with the numbers,” he said “But allowing a month or so for those numbers to be completely vetted, in my opinion, is worth doing.”
The board plans to vote on the issue at their October meeting, currently scheduled for Monday, Oct. 9.