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Lincoln County School Board tables costly field project

The county school board on Monday tabled another high-dollar project for upgrades to a sports complex after trustees expressed reluctance to spend money on non-academic facilities.

In one of its last actions of the year, the Lincoln County School District Board of Trustees voted unanimously to put off almost $432,000 worth of proposed upgrades to the football field at West Lincoln Attendance Center, with board members objecting to the project being placed above the construction of new classrooms at the school and hesitant to green-light football upgrades there after denying them for Loyd Star Attendance Center in August. Educational District 2 Trustee Johnny Hart made the motion to table the project until 2019, when he and two other members will rotate out of service.

“Let the new makeup of the board decide how to go forward. They may not feel as strongly as we do,” he said.

The project would see $431,925 spent to level West Lincoln’s field, construct new drainage and erosion control features and upgrade the stadium’s power and lighting. The field lacks a crown, or gentle arc that rises between the hashmarks, and lies almost perfectly flat, causing water to pool in the southwest corner for days after a hard rain and turn the turf to mush. The project would also move the field’s fences back to make room for the school’s soccer program.

The West Lincoln project is about one-fourth the cost of a proposed job to build a new football and soccer complex for Loyd Star, a $1.9 million undertaking that would see the construction of a new stadium, complete with field house, parking, bleachers and plaza on a tract of land already owned by the district directly northeast of the campus. That project began almost 15 years ago, but little has been done outside of the installation of high-mast light poles — with no electricity — and the cultivation of a playing surface.

The board voted the project down 3-2 in August over concerns about the proposal’s cost and issues of access, doing so in a meeting well-attended by members of the public opposed to the new sports complex. Board president Diane Gill asked the board to put together a long-range facilities plan at that meeting, and Superintendent Mickey Myers had all four principals submit a needs list that was presented to the board in September.

Half the projects requested were sports-related, but West Lincoln Principal John Shows had stadium upgrades third on his list, with the construction of four to six new classrooms as his top priority. Outgoing District 5 trustee Joanna Posey balked when the football field proposal was brought before the board.

“Have we looked at what the classroom needs are at West Lincoln? When I spoke to parents there, they informed me classroom space came first, before any athletics,” she said.

Shows said one of his soccer players slipped in the mud during a recent game and called the field a safety issue.

“I’m in agreement with academics being the top priority, but the safety of the kids, if they’re going to participate in sports, is a priority, too,” he said.

Myers said the need for new classrooms has lessened somewhat — West Lincoln’s attendance is down this year after the Franklin County School District stopped allowing students to transfer into Lincoln County.

Hart — who, along with Posey, voted in favor of the Loyd Star project when it failed in August — reminded the board safety was a goal of the new complex there as well. Part of the project calls for the parent pick-up line to be moved off Hwy. 550 and looped through the new property to the rear of campus.

“But we weren’t willing to pull the trigger,” he said. “I don’t have an issue with this work at West Lincoln, but where do we stand at Loyd Star?”

The parent pick-up line can’t be moved yet because the complex site and the Loyd Star campus are currently unjoined. The board is considering the use of eminent domain to acquire enough property from the adjacent Norton Estate to link the two sites.

Board members in August expressed a willingness to reconsider the project once it was fully accessible and some costs were trimmed, and Myers said he hopes to have an update on acquiring the needed property early next year.

“Even without that, we’ve got a field ready to play on. It needs to be finished,” Hart said. “The community at Loyd Star deserves a field that’s not 60 years old — we’re going to redo a field that’s 20 years old while we put Loyd Star on the back burner? There’s not much to chew off. The field house, as it is, will be the smallest in the district.”

Gill expressed concern about the board’s ability to take on either project, but district business manager Sam Stewart said the board has around $6.5 million set aside in construction funds. The fund began with $2.5 million earmarked for the construction of a new central office and has been used over the years to build projects around the district — the district spent around $5 million for new gymnasiums at Bogue Chitto and Enterprise in 2013.

“We can do a lot,” Stewart said.

There’s a lot to do. Besides the nearly 40 projects the four principals say their campuses need, Myers told the board it will soon need to consider relocating the bus barn and developing an alternative to its downtown rental properties.

The bus barn is located in a crowded residential area on Williams Street and is more than 60 years old. Myers wants to build a new bus barn on district-owned property on Hwy. 84. The board rents office space in the city for its transportation, child nutrition and technology departments.