To pay for the expanded scope and cost of upgrading some athletics fields, the Muscogee County School District wants to take all of the $7.2 million voters approved for these projects at five high schools and spend it on two of them while seeking additional money for the rest.
The Muscogee County School Board is scheduled to vote on superintendent David Lewis’ recommendation during Monday night’s monthly meeting.
The original funding comes from the 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax that Columbus voters renewed in 2015 for another five years or until $192,185,000 is collected for 24 capital projects.
Five of those projects are upgrades to athletics fields at Columbus, Hardaway, Jordan, Kendrick and Shaw high schools. Ground can be broken on the Jordan and Kendrick projects in two months, MCSD construction director Bobby Hecht told the board during its monthly work session Monday night.
“There’s not enough to cover the other three,” Hecht said. “We will be coming back to the board to advise you where we think we can get additional funds.”
The Ledger-Enquirer reported last month that less-than-expected revenue from the SPLOST has prompted MCSD to consider delaying the athletics complex, including a football stadium, envisioned for the property adjacent to the new Spencer High School being constructed. But that’s not “really the reason” for delaying the upgrades to the athletics fields at Columbus, Hardaway and Shaw, Hecht said.
“We done have enough in the SPLOST to do all the projects,” Hecht said. “The reasons are several. We didn’t estimate properly, No. 1, and No. 2, the project has grown exponentially.”
According to the information attached to the board’s agenda, the upgrades include:
▪ Rebuilding the football practice fields at Jordan and Kendrick;
▪ Constructing a softball field at Jordan;
▪ Installing artificial turf at Columbus to allow the baseball and softball teams to used the same field;
▪ Constructing a track at Northside;
▪ Constructing new baseball and softball fields at Kendrick;
▪ Batting cages;
▪ Concession stands;
▪ Lighting for the Jordan and Kendrick football practice fields and all baseball and softball fields.
The Ledger-Enquirer asked MCSD communications director Mercedes Parham in an email Tuesday for the original and current scopes of the projects to understand the difference and why they were expanded. No response was received before deadline Thursday.
Hecht told the board that MCSD has “saved enough SPLOST money on several other projects that we probably will ask the board to transfer those funds” to complete the delayed projects.
Superintendent David Lewis expects to recommend to the board an alternative funding plan at next month’s meeting.
“We won’t do anything without the board’s approval,” Lewis said. “… We will complete all the projects we have going right now.”
The Ledger-Enquirer tried to contact baseball and softball coaches and parents at Columbus, Hardaway and Shaw to find out their opinion of the administration’s proposal. Three stakeholders were reached for comment, and their reactions are mixed.
Columbus softball coach Jamie Wilson played for the Blue Devils before graduating in 1997, so she understands the longtime need for the program to have its own facility -- and that the campus doesn’t have room for one.
When she was a student, the team played at the city-owned Tillis Field. Now, it plays at city-owned Lakebottom Park on Peach Little League’s softball field.
The Columbus softball players don’t have a locker room at their field. They must change at the school and walk or drive to the park. They also must share storage space with Peach Little League. That’s why Wilson is willing to wait for the school district to find funding. After all, she said, she wasn’t expecting the upgrade until 2019 anyway.
“I want what’s best,” Wilson said. “If what’s best is waiting on something that’s better, I’m willing to wait. Hopefully, that’s sooner than later. You just have to trust that they’re making the right decision for what’s best for the students and the players. ... I understand how costs fluctuate, but, at the end of the day, I just want things resolved so the girls have their own facility. I don’t care where that is or what it looks like.”
Wilson is glad MCSD is pursuing the option of sharing the Columbus baseball field with the softball team instead of trying to work out an agreement with the city to upgrade one of the fields at Lakebottom.
“For safety reasons, being able to play on campus is a great plus,” Wilson said.
As for playing on artificial turf to accommodate the increased use of the field, Wilson isn’t concerned. “My girls are tough,” she said.
Hecht told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email Thursday, “The playing field will be subject to an extensive amount of play, leaving little time for proper maintenance of a natural turf field. Boys’ play begins in February followed by girls softball in fall.”
Also in the email, Hecht quoted MCSD athletics director Jeff Battles, who said, “Columbus High does not have adequate land to build a separate softball field. We believe that a combination field will be the best benefit for the softball and baseball athletes. Because of the configuration differences, changing a field from softball to baseball and from baseball to softball on a yearly basis will be extremely expensive. For instance, to prepare the field for softball, we would have to skin the infield and sod behind the infield. Then to switch it back to baseball you would have to add sod and skin the base paths. By using artificial turf, all that will be needed is to move the bases and the mound.”
Wilson praised Battles for “doing a phenomenal job of really trying to get the athletics program for the whole county where it needs to be. He definitely has our best interest in mind.”
The Ledger-Enquirer didn’t reach Columbus baseball coach Chad Mathis, who is the school’s athletics director and former softball coach.
Hardaway baseball coach Chris Gilstrap is upset about the uncertainty of the funding for his program’s upgrade, which he said originally was supposed to start in May.
“I have four busted water pipes on the field -- three of them on the playing surface -- so we’re playing with big mud holes, and nothing’s being done about it, so I have a lot of frustrations,” Gilstrap said.
While the baseball teams at region rivals Columbus, Northside and Shaw have an indoor batting practice facility, Hardaway has a concrete pad covered by a roof that doesn’t always shelter the players from the wind and rain.
“It was blowing so hard (Monday), our cage nets were blowing into other cages,” Gilstrap said. “It’s a safety hazard.”
It’s also a competitive disadvantage.
“We’ve been playing with a bad surface and no lights dating back to the opening of the school (in 1965),” Gilstrap said. “But the hitting facility is the main issue. I’m not on a fair playing field on the days I have to send kids home while my competition has had a full practice.”
Gilstrap also is familiar with the Hardaway softball program’s needs after coaching the team from 2008-12. He described the facility’s needs as “desperate.”
“There’s no cages” Gilstrap said. “The locker room is shared with baseball, and it’s away from the field. The playing surface, it’s bad at best.”
The softball field was supposed to be upgraded among the projects funded by the 2009 SPLOST, Gilstrap said, “but the money ran out and we were at the end of the list. Now, it’s 2018, and nothing’s been done for the softball field. I’d like to believe it’s going to happen, but I’m not holding my breath. ... I’m tired of projects being promised and nothing ever happening.”
Shaw’s coaches weren’t reached for an interview, but Charley Marquand, the father of one of the baseball players, explained the impact of having a facility not as nice as your rivals.
When it comes time for middle school students who play baseball to choose a high school, too many of them in Shaw’s attendance zone choose Northside instead, Marquand said.
Fortunately, he said, Shaw’s baseball facility was boosted by the donation from former Raider and current major leaguer Edwin Jackson, who paid for a hitting cage, outfield fence and scoreboard. The booster club paid for new grass and dirt, but the facility still needs a locker room and restrooms, Marquand said.
Although his son, Alex, is a senior and won’t be on the team when MCSD’s upgrades are done, Marquand said he doesn’t begrudge the possible delay.
“As long as they upgrade all the schools equally, it’s OK,” said Marquand, a substitute teacher in MCSD, mostly at Shaw. “If it takes a little longer to get the right upgrade, I say take your time. If it’s done right, I trust the system.”