CUSD rolls over on Cohasset logging debacle

School district officials swallowed another serving of crow this week, this time at an Aug. 27 meeting in Cohasset with nearly 50 residents who still aren’t satisfied with Chico Unified’s explanation of how a tree-cutting operation went bad and what the district is going to do to make amends.

CUSD Trustees Scott Schofield and Steve O’Bryan, along with Superintendent Scott Brown and Business Manager Randy Meeker, took on questions from members of the newly formed Cohasset Residents Committee—some outraged, others just curious—who wanted to know how the district could allow about 260 trees to be logged off the Cohasset Elementary School property and sold for profit with no one on the school board knowing about it, and without consulting the close-knit ridge community.

“Mistakes were made,” Schofield repeated several times. “Clearly, there was no contract. There was just an understanding, and in that we goofed.”

Logger Dale Ulsh of Forest Ranch had approached Joanne Parsley, then principal of both schools, warning her about dangerous, diseased trees around the Cohasset playground. Soon, Ulsh had the verbal go-ahead to cut. He took out more than 25 truckloads of trees, 97,500 board-feet, totaling $45,470 in value, said Meeker, who gauged going rates for lumber by calling several mills. The district has already gotten a check for $19,584—$200 a board-foot.

If that pays for a new playground, the collective sentiment seemed to be, it would be a playground bought with blood money.

Meeker said the district had reason to trust Ulsh, and, “He indicates that he was told to cut the trees that he cut, so if anybody is to be blamed, it’s CUSD, not Dale Ulsh.”

Several speakers called for “heads to roll,” casting particular blame on Mary Leary, the CUSD’s director of maintenance and operations. When someone said she should be punished, the suggestion drew the heaviest applause of the night.

Perhaps the second-most-popular dig was a tongue-lashing Schofield and Brown got when they said they’d made it up to Cohasset Elementary, one of 23 schools in the district, only once and twice in two years, respectively.

Schofield said neither he nor anyone else on the board knew the scope of work would include the cutting of more than 250 trees.

But, he said, to dissenting groans from the audience, the district’s “main mistake” was the lack of a policy that could have guided district staff on such a project.

“What about the trees?” sighed one man in the audience.

At one point, Meeker even agreed that the district might have violated state laws. “No one from the CUSD has indicated that this was handled appropriately,” he said, reiterating the theme of the evening.

Residents were also fuming because the day after they came, en masse, to the Aug. 15 school board meeting, where they were assured the removal of trees would stop, several loads of wood chips were trucked off the property.

“We said there will be no more cutting,” Schofield countered, not no more removing.

Dana Hanson, who lives near the school, said that when she tried to ask workers why they were taking the chips—which residents thought would be used to cover the ground and stave off erosion—CUSD employees got angry and called the police on her.

“'[Mary Leary] screamed at me, ‘Get off my property; get off these school grounds,'” Hanson said.

Schofield said that even the arborist recommended by the Cohasset Residents Committee agrees more trees need to be taken out. The district estimates finishing the job will cost $37,000—which drew more groans.

The district has already agreed to seek Cohasset residents’ input for a master plan for the campus and specifically how to address future tree removal and how best to repair the damage caused by this operation.

It was Brown who eventually calmed the crowd somewhat, saying the community has a right to feel angry, frustrated and distrustful of the CUSD.

“Let me apologize for how insensitive this is. This is a loss,” he said, recognizing what he called the community’s “tragedy.” When he saw the contrast of the logged area and the historically wooded Cohasset school, he said, “it was quite a shock to me.”

“When we mess something up, we do a real good job of it, as you can see,” he continued, inserting some levity into the tense, muggy room.

He suggested that if heads do roll, they would revolve quietly, behind the scenes. "Obviously, we’re going to protect the personnel rights of everyone who works for us," Brown said.