Top Floor Of Saugatuck High School Press Box Locked Up & Unused For Past Year Due To Violations Of U.S. Disability Law
The two-level press box that sits high above the football stadium at Saugatuck High School was a lightning rod of controversy eight years ago among some voters who were upset that money from a 2007 bond millage was being earmarked for it, along with a new gridiron field and track.
While part of that $12 million bond passage by voters also went to pay for new classrooms at Douglas Elementary School, a new baseball field and technology upgrades, it was the cost of the new football stadium and press box - which sits three- and four-stories high off the ground - at a then estimated $2.7 million pricetag for the stadium-related costs - that really ticked off opponents of the millage.
Even after the millage passed in November 2007, there were still many vocal critics among the local populace, many of whom loudly and publicly continued to complain when school building plans came out showing what some called an “over-sized”, over-priced” and “unneeded” two-level press box that was being designed and built for the facility which was completed, along with the other new stadium construction projects, in 2008.
Today, the top level of that press box sits unused and locks have been installed to prevent anyone from using it. Unbeknownst to most local residents, the locks were put on last year and orders given by school administrators that no one was to enter or use that space.
Because federal authorities last year found the top-level part of the press box structure was in violation of the U.S. Americans with Disabilites Act of 1990 and never should have been built without proper access for disabled people.
Although it was former Saugatuck Public Schools (SPS) Superintendent Tim Wood and the then-SPS School Board that led the 2007 millage effort - and approved the construction projects, including the press box - it was current SPS Superintendent Rolfe Timmerman and the current Board of Education that was left to deal with the problematic press box issue last year.
The United States Department of Education/Office of Civil Rights left Timmerman and the school board with the following choices: Put in an elevator running from the ground up to the second level of the press box to accommodate disabled people who were entitled to use it, or close it down.
Since the estimated cost of constructing an elevator would have been well over $125,000 - and given the school district’s current tightened budget - the decision was made to put locks on the door leading to the stairs to the press box’s second level.
That press box space - at a cost to taxpayers of tens of thousands of dollars - has now sat unused for more than a year.
“We didn’t really have a choice to closing it (press box’s second level) down,” said Timmerman. “We don’t have the funds to put in an elevator. We didn’t even know this was all a problem with the federal government until last year when they came in and did an inspection of the stadium based on other (disability) complaints and discovered the press box issue.”
An even more interesting twist to this story is that the problems with the press box - and its inability to serve the needs of disabled people - was well laid out for Wood and the then-SPS School Board by the Michigan Department of Labor & Economic Growths’ (DLEG) Bureau of Construction Codes and state civil rights officials back in 2007 before the structure was even built.
GMB, the Holland-based architect and engineering company hired by the school district to design, obtain any needed state and federal permits and oversee the construction of the stadium construction projects, alerted Wood to the problem of lack of access by disabled people to the second-level of the press box.
Documents obtained by The Local Observer reveal that David Wilkins of GMB had several written correspondences with Wood about the state disability requirements and that the proposed SPS press box did not meet the access requirements.
Wilkins had received a June 20, 2008 letter from George Herrity, plan reviewer for Michigan’s DLEG, stating, in part: “Press boxes that exceed 500 aggregate feet or have multiple levels shall be on an accessible route. This comment is conditional approved pending results of your Application for (a) Barrier Free Design Rule Exception. If rejected an accessible route will be required.”
Seeking a way to have the two-level press box built without the costly required elevator for the disabled, Wood chose to seek a waiver from the state’s Barrier Free Design Act through a hearing before a state administrative law judge. Wilkins of GMB wrote Wood that he had never seen the state grant such an exemption, but agreed to make the appeal.
On Aug. 12, 2008, in a surprise decision, the administrative law judge granted the SPS waiver for the press box, meaning no elevator - or other accessible means for the disabled - to the press box’s second story, would be required.
That decision was then upheld on Sept. 19, 2008, by the DLEG’s Barrier Free Design Board.
However, in a Sept. 29, 2008 written order from DLEG notifying Wood and the SPS School Board of its decision, the state wrote: “The (DLEG Barrier Free Design Board) can only grant or deny exceptions to Michigan’s barrier free design requirements. The Board has no authority over the federal standards contained in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.”
In what turned out to be a costly decision for taxpayers, Wood and his then-SPS School Board chose not to contact or alert the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights - or any other federal agency charged with overseeing state-based construction projects to ensure they meet federal disability access laws - and proceeded to have the two-level press box built.
The entire issue may have gone unnoticed had not a federal civil rights investigator been called to SPS last year on other alleged civil rights/disability related issues with the district’s high school football stadium (too high of railings and areas designated for disabled fans being taken up by trash receptacles).
Upon seeing the press box - and its lack of disability access - the federal investigator alerted Timmerman that some type of “access route” (elevator or lift) for the disabled needed to be installed if the top level was to continue to be used.
With the school district not able to afford an elevator, Timmerman last year chose to shut down and lock up the press box’s second level as that would bring the structure under the 500-square-foot federal requirement mandating an elevator to be built.
Contacted this week, Wood responded that he felt he had met all the state requirements for building the two-floor press box. He did not say specifically why he chose not to contact federal officials at that time.
“I agree it’s a waste of (taxpayers’) money and space, but there’s nothing we can do about it now,” said Timmerman.