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Home Opinion Editorial: It's time for Scott County to deed sports fields to Scott...

Editorial: It’s time for Scott County to deed sports fields to Scott High School

Scott High soccer coach Eric Henry and assistant coach Ryan Hoffman look on during a game against Oliver Springs at John John Yancey Memorial Park in August 2020. Control of the park’s soccer field has become a source of consternation pitting county government against the county board of education | Ben Garrett/IH

Imagine asking your next-door neighbor, who owns a large parcel of property that isn’t being used, if you can build a home on one of his empty lots for one of your kids to use. He agrees, so you set about the task of gathering the cinderblocks and the lumber and nails, and putting in hours of labor to build the house. Once completed, you maintain the home — mowing the lawn, repairing the roof — and take care of all the expenses related to it. Then, after 20 years or so, the neighbor informs you that since the home is actually on his property, he’ll be letting other people stay in it when you aren’t home. You’ll not be kicked out; it’s still your home and you can sleep there. But he’ll decide who can use it when you’re away.

It’s far from a perfect analogy. But that, in a nutshell, is the situation with the athletic fields inside the Scott County-owned John John Yancey Memorial Park adjacent to Scott High School. The management of the sports complex has been the subject of a fierce, behind-the-scenes debate for weeks. And, on Monday, that debate spilled into the open when County Commission passed, by a 10-2 vote, a resolution that — as Parks & Recreation Committee Chairman David Jeffers read from the minutes — makes that committee “the sole entity” to schedule use of the park.

It has created a dilemma that has an easy solution, one that County Commission should consider sooner rather than later: Transfer ownership of the athletics fields to Scott High School.

Before going any further, there’s one thing that should be established: Storm football deserves a place of their own. It is a fear that Scott High’s soccer field may be opened for use by the youth football league that stirred the debate in the first place. This shouldn’t be a Storm vs. Scott High Soccer issue, and it doesn’t have to be.

But Storm has long been treated like the red-headed stepchild of Scott County’s youth sports leagues, and that isn’t fair. Sonni Reagan, who along with her husband, Dustin, has put countless hours of self-sacrifice into the county’s youth football program, correctly noted that Storm is the only youth sports program in Scott County without its own place to play. County Commission and the towns of Huntsville and Oneida should exhaust every option to provide those kids and their coaches with a permanent practice facility. They deserve it.

But the soccer field at John John Yancey Memorial Park should not be that permanent place (and all involved at the county level have said out loud that it won’t be). Because Scott High School’s soccer program also deserves its own permanent field. And if the soccer field at the county-owned sports complex were opened to football, SHS soccer would become the only high school sports program in Scott County without a facility of its own.

This is a problem that dates back to 1971, when Scott High School was built. The consolidated high school — which replaced high schools in Huntsville, Robbins and Norma — was built on a large parcel of county-owned property that has since grown to include the county’s justice center, its highway maintenance headquarters, its recycling center and farmers market.

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The property wasn’t deeded to the Scott County Board of Education; ownership remained in the hands of Scott County (it wasn’t until last year that the 24 acres the school itself sits on were transferred to the board of education). So, as years passed and sports fields were built to accommodate the school’s extracurricular programs, they were built on county-owned property.

The decision not to transfer ownership of the land to the school board back in the 1970s has led us to the current issue. Minus the football stadium, which was transferred to the school board last year, all of the school’s sports fields are located on county property. But let there be no mistake: For the most part, Scott High School built those fields.

To be fair, everyone involved on the county’s side insists that the resolution adopted by County Commission on Monday isn’t about taking use away from Scott High School. The misunderstanding, they say, came from an off-the-cuff proposal to open up the soccer field for youth football practice, a proposal that has since been scrapped. The resolution states that Scott High teams and the county’s middle school teams will be given first priority for usage of the facilities. And Commissioner Kenny Chadwell, who spearheaded the resolution, went so far as to say that none of the sports fields will be used for anything other than their intended use while those sports are in season.

But, to be equally fair, you can understand from the sequence of events why Scott High’s administrators and coaches have their doubts. The state ordered the roads leading into the sports complex to be gated to keep vehicles out — long a source of consternation among various folks — and that led the Parks & Recreation Committee to explore alternatives so that parents and grandparents could watch Storm practices from their cars. The soccer field was suggested by Jeffers, the committee’s chairman, as an alternative. And only after — in the words of Scott County Mayor Jeff Tibbals — “all hades broke loose” and that suggestion was pushed aside was a resolution introduced that reaffirms county government’s control as the “sole entity” to say who can use the facilities and when.

Everyone’s word withstanding, the resolution itself contains precious few protections for Scott High. The key part of the resolution is a point stating that the Parks & Rec Committee “shall be charged with the regulation and governance of the property, buildings, and other facilities within the John John Yancey Memorial Park and other county property used for recreational purposes, including the establishment of permitted uses, scheduling of uses and maintenance responsibilities.”

The resolution, at face value, grants the Parks & Rec Committee the authority to tell Scott High’s sports teams when they can practice, when they can schedule games … and when they can’t. Verbal promises that county government has no intention of doing that aren’t binding. And it doesn’t matter how pure anyone’s intentions are, there are elections every four years. Every commissioner seated on the county legislative body today will eventually be replaced by others. Those others, whoever they may be, may have intentions that aren’t pure. And they won’t be governed by the word of mouth of any current commissioner. They’ll be governed by the legally-binding document — the one adopted by County Commission Monday that reads that the committee will “establish permitted uses, scheduling of uses and maintenance responsibilities…”

There’s one way to be sure that doesn’t happen: find a way to deed the property over to Scott High School and the Scott County Board of Education.

If these were county-built, and county-maintained facilities that were being used by Scott High School, and County Commission decided to take charge of them, the school board wouldn’t have much to complain about. That’s not the case, however. Scott County has very little investment in the sports complex, except ownership of a parcel of real estate that the county purchased generations ago, before the school was ever built. With the exception of a pair of grants totaling well under $100,000, both the funds and the labor used to build the sports fields have come from the school. As for the soccer field, specifically, former Principal Gary Cross led the initiative to build it in the 1990s. The school board paid for the excavation and the finish work. The school board has since paid to build a concession stand, to put up bleachers, and to build shelters for players. The school board pays for the fields to be mowed, fertilized and re-seeded every year.

So if there’s going to be a “sole entity” in charge of determining who can use those sports fields and when, it should be Scott High School.

It isn’t as though the school system denies access to the soccer field for soccer purposes. There have been times in the past when AYSO games could not be played at Bear Creek Sports Complex after excessive rainfall, due to concerns that the fields would be damaged, and Scott High allowed those games to be played on its field. Scott High has also given a nod of approval for AYSO teams to use its field for practice when space was needed.

Regardless of whose name is on the deed, it’s Scott High’s house. They built it. To be blunt, commissioners’ dismissal of Mayor Tibbals’ concern of who will pay for maintenance of the fields going forward is a slap in the face to the hard work that Scott High has put into it. Tibbals asserted that it would cost the county up to $150,000 per year to keep the fields mowed and maintained. Commissioner Chadwell specifically waved that off, saying the coaches couldn’t stop mowing the fields without “spiting their kids.” And he’s right: if the coaches stop maintaining the fields, they will be spiting their kids. They aren’t going to do that. The county knows that and chose not to address it. So, in other words, there has been no offer from the county to share the burden of responsibility, but a demand that it be given ultimate authority over the fields. It’s an outrageous attitude of, “You pay for it; we’ll control it.”

This issue has dragged on long enough. It has been an on-again, off-again topic of discussion dating back to at least the 1980s. It far predates Mayor Tibbals’ terms in office, but he broached the subject in both his first term and his current term. The argument against his proposal to transfer ownership to the school is that the county cannot deed the property over because long-ago grant agreements prevent it from doing so.

But that point is a crutch for a larger argument: that Scott High School should not be permitted to control the facilities that the school built because they belong to the county. As Mayor Tibbals has correctly noted, the part of the parcel of land containing the actual school, its parking lot and its football stadium, has already been deeded over to the school board — without repercussion. The same should be true for the soccer field. The idea that state authorities are going to swoop in on Scott County with axes to grind because a “bag of grass seed” for the soccer field was paid for with grant money more than a decade ago seems far-fetched.

It’s time to take the necessary action to put this issue to rest once and for all. And, while we’re at it, let’s find Storm a field.

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Independent Herald
Contact the Independent Herald at newsroom@ihoneida.com. Follow us on Twitter, @indherald.
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