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Wednesday, 23 March 2016 14:53

Jackson Schools look for community donations to fund football field

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fr turfIn the quest to replace the football field at Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva with artificial turf, Jackson County Schools is going public in the search for funds to finance its field of dreams.

“This is not an act of desperation for me,” Superintendent Mike Murray told the Jackson County Commissioners last week. “It is an act to try to look at this field as not just artificial turf and not just a football field but as an athletic facility that you will be proud of for years to come.” 

According to Murray, the artificial field is a unifying goal for a cross-section of school, athletic, government and community stakeholders. But he met some vocal opposition when he spoke to commissioners. 

“We have enough problems with our schools without spending any more money on a football field. I’m asking you all not to spend it,” said Robert Medlen, of Tuckasegee. “Use it somewhere else. Use it wisely.”

“Resod the football field,” agreed Denny Wood, of Sylva, who’s been an opponent of the artificial turf idea since the beginning. “Leave it as it is. Is football more important than any other sport?”


The cost to build

Planning for the field began when Jackson Schools landed a competitive grant from the NFL that would contribute $200,000 toward construction of an artificial turf field. It seemed like a worthy investment to the district administration and to much of the school board, the selling point being that an artificial field could be used over and over by everyone from football teams to marching bands to soccer leagues without getting run down like a grass field would. 

But artificial fields cost a lot more than $200,000. Murray had given his word that if the total price tag for the project ran over $715,000, he wouldn’t go through with it. 

As it turns out, however, the project will cost more like $894,000. 

Technically, the estimate came in well below the budget, with the low bidder giving a base bid of $324,000. Even when adding in the $58,000 engineer’s study the district had done before bidding the project, the cost would have come in well below the $715,000 limit. 

But, Murray said, “The landscape of this project changed when we started addressing the health concerns. For the board’s peace of mind and for the community’s peace of mind, they felt like the organic fill was the safer way to go.” 

Artificial fields are typically built using rubber infill, and often “crumb rubber” — ground-up used car tires — is the most economical choice. Though causation has not been proven, there have been widespread concerns that playing on fields using this type of infill could cause cancer down the road. So, the school board began looking at organic alternatives to crumb rubber — more expensive, but without any link to health issues. 

“From talking with people and trying to listen to both sides, it felt like it was better to be on the safe side and use organic material if it was possible,” said Chairman Ken Henke. 

But organic infill — a combination of zeolite and walnut — is a lot more expensive than rubber. The low bid, from Lexington-based Sports Construction Management, would cost $836,000. Add the cost of the engineering study, and that’s $179,000 over the $715,000 cap. 


A split vote

The board voted to move forward with the project anyway — provided that they can fundraise $200,000 from the community by April 15. If they don’t make a decision by then, they’ll risk paying a $20,000 penalty to the company for delaying the contract. 

The school board decision was not unanimous. Margaret McCrae, a former classroom teacher, voted against the other four school board members, opposing the project. 

“We basically agree on everything we do, and this is the first time that I have just objected to something,” said McRae. “And it’s nothing personal. It’s not against anybody or anything — I just don’t feel comfortable doing that.” 

McRae, who represents the Cashiers area, said she didn’t feel it was right to endorse such an expensive athletic project when there are so many unfunded needs in the classrooms. 

“I just felt like that was something that, representing my district, I did not need to do,” she said. 

Murray, meanwhile, emphasized that the dollars that go to teacher pay and textbooks come from a different pot, and in fact commissioners are taking steps to finance some of the much-needed building repairs in the school system.

“If (this strategy) could be used to help that situation I would apply it,” he said of teacher salaries, “but I can’t so I’m not going to lose the emphasis on moving forward on this, even though I don’t think the state is moving forward as much as they should on salaries.” 

McRae isn’t the only one who feels the bill is coming in too high. 

“Take care of my money,” Wood told commissioners last week. “Build the stuff that needs to be built. Take care of the rest of it.”

The football field at Smoky Mountain is “holy ground,” Wood said — tearing it up to put artificial turf in is just plain disrespectful. 


A delayed investment?

Commissioner Boyce Dietz, a former football player and coach on that very field, is well aware of the field’s sentimental value. And often, when discussing capital projects, Dietz will be the one to tell the rest of the board to hold its horses on the spending. But he gave a lengthy speech in favor of the field after hearing what everyone else had to say.  

“This school system and this county has spent so little on athletic facilities throughout the years to be so successful, it is unreal,” Dietz said. “We wanted it all for nothing, but we wanted everybody to win a championship … this is the type of money we haven’t spent on athletics through the years.” 

Athletics are “the best drop-out prevention program in North Carolina Schools,” Dietz said, forcing kids to show up to school and get passing grades to stay on the team. And the field won’t just serve the football players, but also the soccer players and the marching band and the cheerleading squads and the Special Olympics. 

“The biggest problem you’d have if you put that field in is you’ll have to get you a good organizer because there will be so many people using that thing,” Dietz said. 

That’s exactly why Murray’s been coming out swinging in support of the field. 

“I have lost sleep over this. I have worked extremely hard on this because I know for a fact it won’t be just one Friday night we’ll be performing. It will be nonstop,” Murray said. “I’m passionate because of the multi-use.” 

Murray and Henke both said they’re optimistic that the fundraising will be successful. 

“Before I even got back to my car (after the commissioners meeting), I had four individuals text me or write me immediately saying they would donate a thousand dollars each,” Murray said. 

Before launching the campaign, Murray said, he’d spoken with Transylvania County Superintendent Jeff McDaris, who went through a similar situation and wound up fundraising half the cost of the field. That was encouraging. 

“At this point,” Henke said, “I keep getting more and more positive than I do negative about the money being presented.”



Lend a hand

To donate toward an artificial turf field for Smoky Mountain High School, mail a check made out to Jackson County Public Schools, with “turf project” in the memo line, to the Central Office at 398 Hospital Road, Sylva, N.C. 28779. 

If the $200,000 needed to complete the project is raised, all donors will receive an IRS tax deduction form. If the project is not completed, donations will be returned. 

Donors giving $1,000 and more will receive a season pass for two to SMHS athletic events. Those giving $10,000 and up will receive a lifetime family pass for four to SMHS athletic events. 


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