Manila grapples with future of Manila Community Center

Jack Durham
Mad River Union

MANILA – Residents in the sandy outpost of Manila are grappling with the future of their community center and the best way to manage the Manila Community Resource Center.

In April, dozens of residents devoted two separate Sunday afternoons discussing the future of the Manila Community Center in what they called “community visioning workshops.” The results of those workshops were then discussed during an acrimonious meeting of the Manila Community Services District Board of Directors on Thursday, May 21.

The main bone of contention is the future of the Manila Community Resource Center, which is housed in two rooms at the community center, located at 1611 Peninsula Drive. The center offers parenting classes, resource referral and maintains a food pantry. The program is managed by the Manila CSD, but funded with a $65,000 grant from the County of Humboldt and $20,000 from First 5.

Change in management

Some Manila CSD board members are pushing for a change to how the resource center is managed. Rather than having the utility district run the resource center, they want Redwood Coast Montessori to run the program.

The school leases six classrooms at the center, along with office and storage space, from the Manila CSD. Proponents of having the school run the resource center say that school management is better positioned to improve and expand the programs offered by the resource center.

The arrangement might also allow the elementary school to add middle school students because it could utilize some of the space now used by resource center, which is now independent of RCM.

When residents and other attendees at the “visioning” meetings were polled about the proposal, they were about equally divided, with about half in favor of the change and half against it.

At the May 21 Manila CSD board meeting, the board was also divided.

‘Aw geeze!’

Director Selena Kahle submitted a scathing six-page letter urging the board to not turn over the center to RCM. Kahle characterized the school as being disengaged from the community.

“...During the three years that RCM has been there, they have taken no interest in participating in activities or events nor referring parents or children to the resource center programs. Even after continual invitations,” wrote Kahle, who was the director of the Manila Resource Center before she was elected to the board.

Kahle also questioned Manila CSD Manager Chris Drop’s abilities, recommending “that we discuss and take action regarding the general manager’s ability, or lack of ability, to manage our non-enterprise programs and assets during our ongoing, closed session, evaluation of the general manager and make a decision regarding this in conjunction with his 3-year contract.”

Kahle asked to read her six-page letter out loud at the meeting, but at first was rebuffed by Director Jan Bramlett, who said it would take too long. With Board Chair John Woolley absent, Bramlett served as the chair and ran the meeting. Bramlett ultimately agreed to give Kahle five minutes, so she read her letter.

When Bramlett’s timer went off after five minutes, Director Dendra Dengler announced that she would use her own five minutes to continue reading where Kahle left off, prompting one audience member to exclaim, “Aw geez!”

A return to recreation?

The letter also urged directors to rename the position of program director for the community resource center to recreation manager, and to form a parks and recreation commission. The idea is to have the district offer recreation programs.

The district ran recreation programs, including surf camps and swimming lessons, years ago. However, the programs sometimes ran up deficits and were criticized for being mismanaged.

After Manager Chris Drop was hired in 2008, the recreation programs were phased out. Those recreation programs were run by Bev Prosser, who is a member of a new group called Voices of the Peninsula, which advocates for the Manila CSD to offer recreation programs. Dengler is also a member of Voices.

Division in the community

After Dengler finished reading Kahle’s letter, Director Joy Dellas responded “There’s a faction out here that wants to return to the past – the good ole past – and they’re afraid of change.”

Some community members have expressed concerns that RCM is trying to take over the Community Center and edge out the resource center.

Director Bramlett said that there’s a group in Manila spreading rumors and trying to split the community.

“I think there’s a faction in this community that wants to build the division and wants to promote this thing as the ‘gentrifiers want the Montessori school and the poor people are going to get screwed,’” Bramlett said. “That’s very unfortunate. I don’t see that as being the case here.”

Bramlett said the school and the resource center can grow together with better management.

Director Dengler disagreed with the characterization that people don’t want change. Dengler then spoke about recreation programs that used to be offered by the district.

Building repair

When asked about what she thought about the proposed changes to the program, Family Resource Center Director Carole Wolfe said she was “on the fence.” She said she didn’t have enough information to decide whether it was a good move or not.

Wolfe also informed the board that Arcata Rotary needs a letter from the district committing the old house-like structure at the center to the family resource program. The club is willing to volunteer to fix up the dilapidated building, but wants to make sure it will be used by the resource center.

The board voted 3-0, with Dendra recusing herself from the vote, to approve the letter, which states that the resource and the school will share the building. Dendra lives close enough to the center that voting on issues involving the center could be deemed a conflict of interest.

The board moved on to other topics, prompting some of the 30 or so audience members to assume that the “visioning” topic was over, so several people left.

Later in the meeting, this issue was revisited.

Awkward moment

After more discussion. Director Bramlett made a motion to have the district develop a memorandum of understanding with RCM to manage the resource center. The motion was seconded by Dellas.

Kahle, however, questioned the need for this change. “I’m not interested in this until I see more evidence from the general manager why the district doesn’t want to continue managing [the resource center],” Kahle said.

This created an awkward moment. In her letter, which was read earlier in the meeting, she had called into question Drop’s ability to manage the resource center.

Drop wondered aloud why Kahle wanted the program to continue to be managed by someone who she claims is unable to manage it.

“It makes me question why there’s such an appeal to the district to continue managing it, or is it just me?” Drop said.

“I find it concerning that there’s a lot of criticisms – open criticism against management – but yet this district should continue to manage the resource center,” Drop said. “I can’t make that connection without looking past at other chapters or motives.”

Kahle then appeared to backtrack on her criticism of the manager, saying, “It has not been my experience that you lack the ability to manage.”

Kahle noted that the district has managed the resource center for about 20 years and wondered why that needed to now change.

“I can assure you that this district has managed it well since its inception,” Drop responded. But the school, Drop said, could probably do a better job.

Drop warned Bramlett that the agenda for the meeting didn’t indicate that the board would take a vote on who should manage the resource center.

Rather, the board was supposed to receive the results of the visioning workshops and discuss the issue. Bramlett withdrew her motion.

The issue will be discussed more at a future Manila CSD meeting.

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