January 30, 2013

Southeast track will not be replaced

Some school upgrades approved, others denied

By Christopher Smith

— Mother nature often finds ways to grow in tough conditions.

Take the Southeast Whitfield High School running track for example, where weeds and grass spring from cracks in the track.

Parents, teachers and students made it clear they felt the school needed improvement when they spoke at a Whitfield County Board of Education work session on Sept. 25. Several who attended the meeting asked for improvements, including renovations to the track, a field house for girls soccer and the removal of trees obscuring the school from the south bypass.

On Monday, some four months later, school board members denied most of the requests. The main reasons?

Money and logistics.

“These are construction needs and you would need use ESPLOST to address the needs and I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said Richard Schoen, director of school operations.

The Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (ESPLOST) is a 1 percent sales tax that began on Jan. 1 and is limited by state law to fund facilities, technology and transportation needs. School officials are planning to use ESPLOST revenue to pay off debt from building Coahulla Creek High School, which cost $43 million, and Eastbrook Middle School, which cost $24 million.

Some requests were met, including new fencing around the soccer field, which was put up by prison laborers when school was out for winter break. Advance Placement classes are also being added, with seven teachers working on certification, Schoen said.

County Schools Superintendent Danny Hayes said he “wouldn’t hold meets on the track,” but Michael Durham, Southeast’s track coach, is “content” with the current situation.

“I’m not going to lie. If you look at the track, it’s not great. But it is serviceable,” Durham added. “I think a new track would benefit the school, make the complex look better, but I also know I’m being selfish as a track coach. It would expensive, but new things do help. I mean, look at Coahulla Creek. A lot of kids went there because it was new. It got them fired up.”

The track is “worn, used, cracked, but not hazardous,” Southeast Athletic Director Mark Lentych said.

“When you compare it to good quality track surfaces that competitions are held on it’s nowhere as good as those,” he said. “It’s clearly in used condition.”

Its condition is to the point where it has to be replaced, not renovated, Schoen said.

“The track really needs to be dug up if we do anything to it,” Schoen said. “Maybe that will be part of a future ESPLOST down the road.”

ESPLOST revenue can’t be used to remove trees obscuring the school from the bypass.

“The sate Department of Transportation has a moratorium for clearing right of ways like the one where the trees are,” said Eric Beavers, county school communications specialist. “And removing those trees could also lead to a stormwater runoff issue. Clearing the trees isn’t an option.”

And adding field houses?

“We have no plans for that,” Schoen said, “I can tell you, there are field house issues at other schools, too. If you go to all the schools they don’t have field houses for soccer.”

Other projects — such as a bigger school courtyard and bigger cafeteria — will also wait.

Durham said school board members care about Southeast, despite not approving most renovations.

“I know the school board is aware of our needs,” Durham said. “I know they also have constraints financially.”