Civil Service commish apologizes for $6K misunderstanding

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Four acres of mud and ruts replaced playing fields at Farnsworth Middle School after twice the number of people expected showed up to take Civil Service exams on Saturday morning. On Tuesday, the state’s Civil Service commissioner made a surprise visit to Guilderland to apologize and urged the district to submit a claim for the damages, estimated at $5,000 to $6,000.

GUILDERLAND — The state’s Civil Service commissioner, Jerry Boone, visited Farnsworth Middle School on Tuesday to see for himself the four acres of grassy playing fields that had been turned to rutted mud on Saturday.

The school’s parking lot holds about 500 cars so, when roughly 1,000 people showed up to take Civil Service exams on Saturday morning, many of them parked in the playing fields.

Asked for Boone’s reaction on seeing the fields, Ed Walsh, spokesman for the Department of Civil Service, said on Tuesday afternoon,  “I’m sure the commissioner wishes it didn’t happen….He wanted to see it for himself…It was an unfortunate incident.”

The school district’s superintendent, Marie Wiles said, “He came to the district office and offered his apologies.” Boone suggested the district submit a claim for damages, noting that he can’t obligate the state.

Clifford Nooney, who supervises buildings and grounds, estimated it could cost between $5,000 and $6,000 to restore the fields.

“We will begin work immediately,” said Wiles on Tuesday. This will involve using big equipment to “get rid of the ruts,” she said, and then leveling the ground, spreading it with topsoil, and re-seeding. Grass will probably grow this spring, she said, but it may not “be playable.”

“It was unexpected,” Wiles said of Boone’s visit, noting she was “pleased he came by personally.” She also said she would be “pleased to tell taxpayers” the state may pick up the tab and it will “be whole at the end.”

“Huge miscommunication”

The snafu was due to “a huge miscommunication,” said Wiles.

Organizations that want to use school buildings fill out a request form, she explained. The Civil Service Department indicated on the form that 1,000 people would be taking tests on Saturday, in morning and afternoon sessions; a similar number was expected on Sunday. (After Saturday’s debacle, the Sunday exams were postponed to the next weekend at another venue.)

The district interpreted this to mean 500 would attend in the morning and 500 in the afternoon.  Farnsworth accommodates 1,200 students and has parking spots for about 500 so the district anticipated no problems.

“On March 8, we had hosted Civil Service exams at Farnsworth Middle School for 460 people,” said Wiles. “It went off without a glitch.”

“That 1,000,” said Wiles, referring to the request form for March 22, “was supposed to mean 1,000 per session — far beyond our capacity for parking.”

Early Saturday morning, it became clear there was a problem as traffic was backed up on Route 20, Guilderland’s main thoroughfare, as far as the Northway, going east, and as far as Willow Street, going west. The middle school is located off of Route 155, less than a mile from Route 20.

Explaining the cause of the traffic backup, Wiles said, “We literally ran out of parking spaces. Cars parked on [Route] 155, and on neighborhood streets in the vicinity of the campus…The Guilderland Police came on the scene and tried to help coordinate traffic to prevent injury and accidents.”

Wiles said she didn’t know who made the call to direct cars to park on the soccer field but, she said, it was the right call “from a public-safety perspective.”

In the morning, when the test-takers arrived, the ground was frozen and they had no trouble navigating the field to park their cars.

“Spring decided to spring later in the day,” said Wiles. “The ground got soft. People got stuck and were spinning their tires.”

Guilderland Police Chief Carol Lawlor said that the police were notified by a citizen of a traffic problem at about 9:30 on Saturday morning.

“An officer responded and found a massive traffic jam,” said Lawlor. “She began directing traffic.”

Officer Patricia Stallmer was there for 45 minutes to an hour, Lawlor said, and was joined by a couple of other officers, on staggered shifts, who directed traffic and, later, helped with stuck cars.

Lawlor believes a school official made the decision to have cars park on the fields, which she noted were frozen at the time.

Lawlor stressed, “We don’t park people on private property.”

She also said, “The school district is excellent in notifying us for any event they think will be an issue. For concerts, for open houses, they always let us know. We plan ahead. Sometimes they even pay for police officers to be there. It was apparent they didn’t know this was going to happen because they didn’t notify us.”

When Lawlor heard Wiles’s explanation of the miscommunication on the building-use request form — that is, 500 were expected, not 1,000, for the 500 parking spaces — Lawlor said, “You can’t fit a square peg in a round hole.”

Aftermath

The muddied fields won’t stop the school’s physical-education classes from outdoor play once the weather improves, nor will they impede the intramural sports program, said Wiles.

“We have additional fields behind Farnsworth,” she said, noting it is just “a short walk” to a baseball field, a softball field, and an “all-purpose field,” which can be lined for soccer or lacrosse.

On Monday morning, the Farnsworth principal, Michael Laster, met with the district’s athletic director, Regan Johnson, to work out game schedules. Johnson also met with Farnsworth’s physical-education teachers to go over the use of the fields.

The debacle received much media coverage.

Bryan Clenahan, an Albany County legislator from Guilderland, responded with a letter to Boone.

“There was a huge traffic jam, with a mile-long radius,” Clenahan told The Enterprise on Tuesday night. “I heard the police were not informed…It was just luck no emergency vehicle got stuck…It could have been a disaster.”

In addition to damage to school property, Clenahan writes that residents of neighborhoods bordering the school may have suffered property damage as well. “The cost of repairs should be the responsibility of the Department of Civil Service,” writes Clenahan.

He also writes that it is “unclear” why Civil Service representatives at Farnsworth before the Saturday exam started “did not communicate to school officials a more accurate count.” And, he admonishes the department for not notifying the Guilderland Police.

“Finally,” writes Clenahan, “this situation was a disservice to the job candidates. A competitive examination for a job or promotion is fraught with stress under the best of circumstances. The stress inherent in the situation was unnecessarily compounded with the additional burden of navigating nearly gridlocked traffic only to find there was no parking available at the exam site. I have little doubt that some candidates’ performance on their exams was negatively impacted.”

Wiles read blogs and Facebook postings that asserted the school district should plan better.

“We’re getting slammed, too,” said Chief Lawlor. She responded to public criticism by reiterating that the police did not make the call to have cars park in the school fields. “We don’t do that, not without permission,” she said. She also said, “We can’t have public safety in jeopardy.”

“We’re good at planning,” Wiles said in response to public criticism. Based on the information the district had, Wiles said, it was reasonable to expect all would have gone well as it had on March 8 with the 460 Civil Service test-takers at Farnsworh.

If the district had understood there would be 1,000 people at a single session, Wiles said, it could have suggested using the high school or arranged for a shuttle bus.

Asked who was at fault in the miscommunication, Wiles said, when she looks at the form, she sees 1,000 people for the day. “If I invited 1,000 to a party, I’d have enough cake for 1,000,” she said.

She noted, for example, that the middle school, which serves sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders, never has a parents’ open house for the whole school, but rather just one grade at a time. “The reason for that is parking,” said Wiles.

“We’re thoughtful about planning,” she reiterated.

Lessons learned

“Everyone learned something from this,” said Wiles.

Walsh noted that the Civil Service exams — on Professional Career Opportunities and Public Administration Traineeship Transition — that had been scheduled at Farnsworth for Sunday, March 23, have been rescheduled for March 29 and 30 at Albany High School.

“We’ve had 14,000 tested so far on this in over 20 locations with no [other] incidents,” said Walsh.

Although comparably sized groups have taken tests at Albany High School before, Walsh advised, “If they’re coming out to Albany High School, we encourage people to take public transportation or carpool.”

Wiles said that Guilderland will make sure the building-use form from now on asks the total number expected for an entire event “so there isn’t any room for interpretations.”

The district’s school buildings and grounds are used by many groups, Wiles said. Not-for-profit groups within the school district don’t pay for use, just for added expenses, such as custodians’ salaries.

“This was a paying group,” Wiles said of the Civil Service Department, which was to pay $6,500 for both days.

“Even though this was an unfortunate outcome,” said Wiles, “it doesn’t mean we’ll close our doors. We’re part of the community.”

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