After monsoon rains turned Tucson High’s Rollin Gridley Stadium into “Gridley Lake” in July, the school district is taking the first step toward suing the city and county, saying they share some of the blame for the flooding and should help cover the costs to fix the damage.
The school district and its insurer last week served both the city and county with notices of claim, a precursor to a lawsuit.
In the meantime, the Tucson Unified School District is footing the bill for new astroturf on the football field and is attempting to get the project done in time to allow the school to host its graduation ceremony on the field in May.
The TUSD Governing Board on Tuesday gave the district the go-ahead to conduct a “mini-bid” process, asking for bids from just a handful of trusted contractors to speed up replacing the astroturf.
The board approved spending more than $250,000, though the actual cost will likely surpass $325,000 and could breach the $400,000 mark. Insurance will cover about $175,000 of that, according to TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo
The district, which is facing a budget shortfall this year of between $4.5 million and $6 million due to declining enrollment, is tapping its “school plant fund” which has nearly $10 million in the bank, but can only be spent in a handful of areas, including capital improvements.
And while the district is footing the bill for now, TUSD isn’t accepting all the blame for the flooding.
The district is hoping to recoup at least part of its costs, saying an independent engineer found that the flooding was caused by a combination of factors that were exacerbated by the city and county.
Trujillo said the engineer’s report shows that clogged drains at the high school, a city construction project, inadequate pipes and homeless people living under Tucson High all contributed to the flooding.
That independent engineer’s report, however, has not been made publicly available. Trujillo said he would like to share the report, but couldn’t because it was commissioned by the district’s insurer, and therefore belongs to them, not the district.
The Arizona Daily Star has filed a public records request for the document.
But who’s at fault for the flooding remains an open question.
Andy Dinauer, a division manager with the Pima County Regional Flood Control District, which did its own audit, said the fault clearly lies with TUSD.
“It’s not rocket science, you can see what happened. The grates were covered with debris,” he said.
But in the notices of claim, the district alleges “the City and or County failed to properly design, operate and/or maintain the culvert — allowing natural and unnatural debris to accumulate inside them — which caused the drains at the football stadium to back up.”
The district offered to settle for $492,000, while its insurer, the Arizona School Risk Retention Trust, Inc., aimed lower, offering to settle for $117,000.
Dinauer said blaming the city or county was “a nice diversion,” but it was pretty obvious what happened — the school didn’t properly maintain its drains.
“That’s a pretty big stretch that that had something to do with what happened on the field. Because once you scraped the stuff off of the grates, boom, it drained. It was like flushing a toilet,” he said.
Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin said he hasn’t seen a copy of the report from the engineer hired by TUSD’s insurer and couldn’t respond to specific claims. He noted that the city and county have 60 days to evaluate the claim, though he didn’t need that long to say whether the city is to blame.
“I’m comfortable saying our position at this point, based on our investigation of the incident, is that there’s no responsibility on the part of city — or the county, for that matter,” he said.
But Trujillo disagreed, saying the problem was clearly larger than just blocked drains at the school.
“We have a difference of opinion. The trust disagrees with this being solely the responsibility of the Tucson Unified School District. We have filed a claim, we will be seeking monetary compensation,” he said.
Trujillo said the city had adjusted its drainage system surrounding the school during a construction project for the streetcar, and the school’s drainage system didn’t match the adjustments the city had made.
And he said homeless people had entered a city-owned wash and ended up living in a drainage tunnel underneath the school, clogging it with their furniture and trash.
He noted that in the school’s more than 100-year history, the field had never flooded before.
“This is well beyond blocked drainage at Tucson High, not that that wasn’t part of the issue, but to cause the amount of damage that has been seen, it’s well beyond blocked drainage,” Trujillo said.
While the legal battle rages in the background, Trujillo’s focus is on repairing the field in time for graduation so that Tucson High students can celebrate at their own school, even if that means the district has to foot the bill for now.
“We had an act of nature take out a facility and that has interrupted instruction. We have no band. We have no P.E. classes going, no weight training going, football team dislodged, soccer team dislodged, and now it’s going to impact graduation. So we felt like we had a good justification to go into the school plant fund,” he said.