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Baseball field improvements move forward at SMHS

Jackson County Schools hopes to have required accessibility improvements to the baseball field at Smoky Mountain High School complete by late summer or early fall. Holly Kays photo Jackson County Schools hopes to have required accessibility improvements to the baseball field at Smoky Mountain High School complete by late summer or early fall. Holly Kays photo

It will cost nearly half a million dollars to upgrade facilities at the Smoky Mountain High School baseball fields to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Jackson County Public Schools received three bids for the project at the Jan. 9 bid opening, with the architect recommending that the board accept the low bid of $463,800, put forward by Sylva-based Western Builders. The other bidders proposed base prices of $475,000 and $587,000. 

A vote on a budget amendment to place funding for the project in the school capital reserves fund was on the agenda for the Jackson County Commissioners’ Jan. 21 meeting, which occurred after The Smoky Mountain News’ press time. The school board will also have to vote on the expenditure for the project to receive approval. 

The improvements will include two ADA-compliant bathrooms at the field level, ADA-compliant bleachers at the field level, an ADA-compliant parking lot between the batting cages and baseball field, a road to connect N.C. 107 to the new parking lot, improved drainage at the field level due to the new paved surfaces and ADA-compliant walkways to each baseball dugout. Both the parking lot and road will need to be capable of holding the weight of a fire truck. 

The project stems from a complaint lodged with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in April 2018. According to a letter the office sent to Jackson County Schools Superintendent Dr. Kim Elliott in October 2018, the complaint alleged that the district discriminated against baseball game patrons on the basis of disability by failing to provide parking, bathrooms and paths to the bathrooms accessible to patrons with disabilities. As a result of the complaint, the school district signed an agreement pledging to provide the required facilities.

Commissioners discussed the project during a work session Jan. 14, with Commissioner Boyce Deitz voicing frustration about the overall state of some of the school district’s athletic facilities and with the fact that in this instance facilities for often lightly attended baseball games were being addressed ahead of facilities for more heavily attended events like football games. 

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“I don’t see them having a plan,” said Deitz. “Their plan is to do whatever they’re forced to do and at the moment they have to do it.”

Chairman Brian McMahan acknowledged that there are other deficiencies that need to be addressed but said that due to the Office of Civil Rights complaint the baseball fields have to be the top priority at the moment. 

“This is one that we know we’ve got to meet, and I don’t know that we’ve got much choice,” he said. 

In a follow-up interview, Elliott said that the district has a 10-year plan for addressing other capital needs, including for athletics. 

“We are aware that the issues with older buildings and older facilities can certainly arise,” she said. “That’s why the need for the 10-year plan, so we can strategize and prioritize those needs, and of course safety always comes first. Safety has to come first.”

In its agreement with the Civil Rights Office, the district said that by March 1, 2019, it would provide ADA-accessible seating, parking and portable bathrooms, all on the upper section of the baseball facility. By Aug. 1, 2019, accessible seating, parking bathrooms and paths would be in place on the field level — the improvements to be covered under the recently opened bids. 

The school district met the March 1 deadline but was not able to meet the Aug. 1 deadline, largely due to administrative hurdles, said Assistant Superintendent Jake Buchanan. For instance, the Office for Civil Rights had wanted the school district’s plan to be signed off on by a person in state government who had retired but whose exact position was not going to be continued. The school district instead communicated with the employee’s former superior, who then bounced them back to local code enforcement. 

“The real biggest delay throughout the project has been working through the different levels of approval, and so that’s why the Office of Civil Rights has not had a problem with those delays, because they’ve been a part of that conversation,” said Buchanan. 

The school district could receive the final go-ahead to start construction if the school board votes to accept the bid during its Jan. 28 meeting. Buchanan said work should start within 30 days of that vote and that contractors will require about 120 days of labor to complete the project. Weather and game schedules will impact the timeline, but he hopes to see it wrap up by late summer or early fall. 

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