Hawkins school director answers questions about Cherokee's $437K elevator

Jeff Bobo • Nov 22, 2017 at 3:00 PM

ROGERSVILLE — On Monday, the Hawkins County Commission’s Budget Committee gave Director of Schools Steve Starnes a sneak preview of the questioning he can expect at next Monday’s County Commission meeting regarding a budget request for a $437,000 elevator project at Cherokee High School.

Starnes told the Times-News Monday that Cherokee has about six students who are wheelchair bound.

The elevator will bring Cherokee into ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance, but the construction bid came back about $80,000 over the estimated cost.

This past spring, the Board of Education approved an allocation of $1 million toward capital outlay projects including three roof sections, one set of bleachers and the elevator. But cost overruns are expected on the roofs as well.

The proposed budget amendment would cover the full cost of the elevator and be drawn from school general fund savings.

Here are some of the exchanges Monday between Starnes and Budget Committee Chairman Stacy Vaughan.

Vaughan: “Where is the elevator needed?”

Starnes: “When you leave the gym lobby area, you access the balcony of the gym. To get to the gym floor, you have to either go outside and go around (the parking lot), or take a stairs down (13.5 feet) to the gym floor. Although the floor plan is almost identical to Volunteer’s gym, (the topography is different and) Volunteer’s gym lobby leads directly onto the gym floor.”

Vaughan: “If the elevator came in $80,000 over budget, why are you asking for an amendment for the entire $437,000?”

Starnes: “Originally we had budgeted $1 million for 2017-18 capital outlay projects, and we had anticipated setting aside part of that for building improvements for throughout the year. (This year’s projects include) two sections of roof at Bulls Gap, a section or roof at Church Hill Middle, the bleachers at Surgoinsville Elementary and the elevator at Cherokee. That (elevator) came in higher than anticipated. ... We felt if we could get the money to cover this (elevator) project, then there would be enough money to safely cover the bleachers and roof sections, and then any money that isn’t spent will roll back.”

Vaughan: “When was the elevator project first discussed by the BOE?”

Starnes: “We started working on this back in the spring, and the board agreed to seek bids and work with the architect all through the summer months. The school board voted in October to award the construction contract. This budget amendment was approved by the board at the November meeting.”

Vaughan: “Are there any other schools that need an elevator?”

Starnes: “When you look at ‘reasonable accommodations,’ (it’s acceptable) if you’re able to bring them the programs. For example, at Surgoinsville Middle, a portion of that school is two levels as well. There are some classrooms in the lower level of that building, but if we have an issue, we’re able to bring those classes up. You wouldn’t be able to bring a gym class or P.E. class up off the gym floor. Also, if we’re having graduation ceremonies and other ceremonies at gym, where if you access the gym floor from the bottom, you don’t have (wheelchair) access to the restrooms on the second floor.”

Vaughan: “Do we need this to be ADA compliant at Cherokee?”

Starnes: “We are not ADA compliant. This is needed to come into compliance.”

Vaughan: “Are there any other schools that aren’t ADA compliant?”

Starnes: “We have several schools with elevators. Rogersville Middle School has an elevator. We have one at Church Hill Middle. I think we have an elevator at Church Hill Intermediate — basically just about any (multi-level) school besides Surgoinsville Middle School we have an elevator right now.”

Vaughan: “Why not build a ramp or a lift?”

Starnes: “The height difference is 13.5 feet, and (according to state code) every 12 to 18 feet you have to include a four-foot landing area. If we build a ramp, it would have to be covered and air-conditioned. We felt like the elevator project was a much more viable option. We did consider a lift, but we would have had to remove a section of bleachers to make that accessible, so as not to impede the flow of other areas there.”

Vaughan: “Are we at risk of an ADA lawsuit?”

Starnes: “We could be sued at any time.”  

Vaughan: “Is the perception that you launched the elevator project and are just now asking for the money incorrect?”

Starnes: “We had anticipated (that elevator construction expense) and tried to budget $325,000 to $350,000 for the project, and it has come in higher.”

Vaughan: “If the County Commission denies the budget amendment, will you still go forward with the elevator project?”

Starnes: “Yes. It is underway and we’ve already signed the contract. It’s a 120-day contract, and barring unforeseen conditions it will be done sometime in March or early April.”

Vaughan: “If Cherokee has been there 37 years, why has this (ADA compliance) never been brought up before now?”

Starnes: “I can’t answer that. The issue is long overdue.”