Sacking stadium fixes: Superintendent says no funds available for improving aging athletic facilities
Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith punted any hope of funding for deteriorating high school football stadiums, including one that already is destined for the wrecking ball.
Smith said the district's budget doesn't have the funds to rebuild East Ridge High School's condemned stadium, and he worries other schools may lose their half-century-old stands.
"The age of our stadiums is catching up with us," Smith said. He said one possible solution might be consolidating stadiums.
County school officials say a private structural engineer will assess the district's old and masonry-constructed stadiums. On the district's list to inspect are Lookout Valley, Hixson, Howard, Ooltewah and Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences. More schools could be added, officials said.
Justin Witt, director of maintenance and operations for Hamilton County Department of Education, said the goal is to have assessments of each stadium complete by January, giving schools an estimate of how long the stadiums may safely last.
He said it usually costs about $200,000 to erect good, durable aluminum bleachers that seat 1,000 fans. For East Ridge, estimates to demolish and rebuild its stands and a press box on the current location are running around $400,000.
Smith said funding of new stadiums is going to fall on the County Commission and communities, as the $3 million annual capital budget designated for maintenance is not enough to cover these costs.
He said options such as consolidating stadiums between schools should be considered.
"I know the value of athletics and how important they are to communities," Smith said. "But the fact of the matter is right now we have so many needs in Hamilton County schools with regards to facilities, and the stadiums are not going to be on the top of my priority list."
Jim Boles, principal of CSAS, said he is concerned the school's soccer stadium could be condemned, but he supports Smith's priority to fund education before athletics.
"When funds are limited, the priority has to be academics," Boles said. "Until people in this community decide funding schools is a priority these things are going to keep happening."
Boles said his school was able to raise $15,000 for baseball fields a couple of years ago through donations, volunteer work and the help of a county commissioner's discretionary funds.
The crumbling stadiums now in question cannot be helped by county commissioners' discretionary funds, as commissioners learned in June that those donations are illegal.
County Commissioner Tim Boyd represents the East Ridge district. He said he's frustrated with the school system for waiting until the stadium "fell apart" before taking drastic action.
"The Department of Education does not maintain their facilities properly all over the county," Boyd said. "Responsible owners should take care of their facilities."
Boyd said the commission "just writes [the school board] a check," and it is not the commissioner's jobs to conduct maintenance or accept responsibility for the condemned stadiums. The county funds the school board, but the board allocates the money.
School Board member Jonathan Welch said deferred maintenance is a reality to anyone dealing with tight budgets.
"This shouldn't be a surprise to Commissioner Boyd, as he has voted to approve our budget every year," Welch said.
The County Commission is responsible for funding new school construction, though they do not fund athletic facilities when building a school. Welch said that when the new Signal Mountain High School was built, he and several members of the community raised money from private donors for the athletic facilities.
Welch said he knows this approach may not work in every district, particularly the poorer ones, and that in the future the school board needs to be creative when it comes to athletic facilities. He said he could be in favor of consolidating stadiums if that means better fields and well-maintained seating.
East Ridge Mayor Brent Lambert was terse in his assessment of the situation.
"It's disappointing that the school system will not take an active role in replacing what is theirs," he said.
Lambert contended the school system negligently failed to conduct long-term maintenance on the stadium, but added that the city still wants to be a part of the conversation about a long-term solution. He said it would likely contribute financially.
Consolidating stadiums is a solution that makes sense, Lambert added. He said Camp Jordan should be considered as an alternative location for East Ridge's stadium, adding that the school's soccer teams already play at the city-run facility.
"Because the city maintains that facility, hopefully we can be involved in maintenance so that it won't be built and not touched for 20 years," Lambert said.
School Board member David Testerman said it's been common knowledge that East Ridge's stadium was in bad shape.
"We've just been kicking the can down the road," he said.
Testerman said he hopes more money can be set aside by the County Commission to allow the school district to better maintain facilities. Meanwhile, he remains hopeful that the school board, county commission and the East Ridge community can come together to figure out what to do next.
"I don't see how we could not replace the stadium," Testerman said. "But how it shall be replaced is the question."
Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592.