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Why wasn’t Cascade’s  greenhouse program saved?

EVERETT — A five-year saga that began with a student’s question ended abruptly this summer with the dismantling of Cascade High School’s food-producing greenhouse and a nascent aquaponics system.
Some people aren’t happy about that.
“It was cutting-edge stuff,” said CHS science teacher Jack McLeod of the work students were doing in the greenhouse. Student projects there received thousands of dollars in grant money, beginning with a $2,000 grant from a foundation of Whole Foods Corp. in 2012.
That was the year then-freshman Audrey Taber asked McLeod the seminal question: “Do you think the (Environmental Arts) club could clean out the blackberries in the greenhouse and grow food for the community?”
McLeod, the club’s advisor, said he was still pondering her question when Taber followed up with: “Here’s a list of grants we could apply for.”      
“She was a visionary and a pragmatist,” he said, and three years later she was named a Superintendent’s Scholar. 
From there the project took off: Blackberries were cleared, improvements to the old greenhouse made, raised garden beds built, seeds planted, food harvested, and fresh produce donated to local food banks and the school—all with student help and labor. The project was a point of pride for the district.
“Years of student work (was) just coming to fruition when they tore the greenhouse down,” McLeod said.  
Students and advisors were putting the final touches on an aquaponics system in the greenhouse—which combines fish-raising with plant-growing to produce food—when they learned on April 20 that the greenhouse would be shuttered due to safety concerns.
Molly Ringo, director of maintenance for the Everett School District, said in an interview that the greenhouse and aquaponics system were dismantled this summer for “significant” safety reasons. 
A statement from the school district lists numerous bulletpoint reasons why it was torn down, including antiquated electrical wiring; old, deteriorated and corroded equipment; sharp sheet metal in the greenhouse posed danger to students; improper drainage; uneven ground inside the greenhouse; a sump pump needed to be dug out; and others.
“We value the experiences the old greenhouse has provided students over the past 50 or more years; however, the hazards created by the structure necessitated immediate restrictions on access and demolition,” school district spokeswoman Diane Bradford wrote in a statement,
adding that students still use a smaller on-campus greenhouse with raised beds.
McLeod acknowledged some of the safety issues, but disputed others last week, and said some claims were “just wrong.”
Zsofia Pasztor, whose nonprofit organization “Farmer Frog” worked closely with the school to design and build
the aquaponics system, called it “a wonderful program.”
Pasztor said she believes the school district could have shown more willingness to collaborate with students, families, and teachers to address the greenhouse problems. “Safety issues could have been fixed or solved differently,” she said, suggesting that families and/or the community likely would have stepped up to help finance repairs. 
A Seattle builder of aquaponic systems told him that Cascade’s might be the second largest system in the state, McLeod said.
McLeod listed eight classes that were involved in greenhouse projects and approximately how many students in each. The list cumulatively has 300 students in AP and other classes.
Pasztor’s husband, Zsolt Pasztor, was a key player in developing the aquaponic system. McLeod said Zsolt donated time to the project nearly every Friday afternoon for over two years.
Zsolt was also called upon to help dismantle and transport the aquaponics system on short notice last summer, his wife said, and only managed to do it on time because “an incredible team of people showed up” to help. The system now resides at the Farmer Frog site near Woodinville.
McLeod, a 31-year teaching veteran, said when he asked school officials what would happen to the aquaponics system if the greenhouse was destroyed, he was told they “hadn’t thought of that.”
“I insisted that the system be saved somehow,” he said. 
 A number of students and teachers approached the school board with their concerns about dismantling the greenhouse, said Zack Demars, a 2017 Cascade graduate. Student leaders got involved last spring when they learned the greenhouse project was threatened. “A lot of students really loved the project,” he said, and it was not clear why it was being scrapped.
“It was assumed that (the school district thought) it would be too expensive”
to address safety concerns, he said.          
At the board level, Demars characterized the decision that it was “just handed down” that the greenhouse would be demolished.
“There was never a cost analysis that I saw,” or that most people saw,” he said. “The cost (to make needed repairs) was never shared.”
A school district spokeswoman said last week it would have cost an estimated $48,000 to $80,000 to repair the facility “using construction standards for a ‘light use commercial greenhouse.’”

 

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