Wake commissioners approve Athens Drive stadium repairs

mquillin@newsobserver.comJune 3, 2013 

— Athens Drive High School’s football stadium – home of the Jaguars – will get long-hoped-for renovations and repairs by fall 2015 under a plan approved Monday by the Wake County Board of Commissioners.

Commissioners approved a request by the county school board to spend some of the money the school system has left over from its 2006 capital improvement plan to make upgrades to the stadium at Athens Drive. Parents and coaches have said for years the stadium is unsafe, inadequate and inaccessible to people with disabilities, including some the school’s own students.

Details of projects to be done at the stadium will come later, when the school board makes a formal request to commissioners to reallocate the money. School boosters have said the stadium needs a field house, which it has never had since the stadium was completed in the 1970s, as well as improved lighting and a paved access road that emergency vehicles can use.

The work is expected to cost more than $4.5 million.

Karen Evanoff made an emotional plea to the board before it took a vote on the request; like other parents, she has worked since her son was a freshman at Athens Drive to bring attention to the problems at the stadium, which she and others have said amount to a form of discrimination. Her son will graduate next week, she said.

Athens Drive High School has the largest population of special needs students of any Wake County high school, “And many of them can’t get even get into the stadium,” Evanoff said.

Even after commissioners gave their OK for the plan, Evanoff said she was afraid to get too excited about the possibility of the repairs being made.

“I won’t believe it until I see that shovel hit the dirt,” she said.

Alan Keith, who got involved with the effort in 2007, vowed to stay with it until the work is completed. His two daughters already have graduated, he said, but the push needed some continuity rather than seeing its boosters drop out when their children got their diplomas.

The problems at the stadium are the result of the school’s complicated genesis, Keith said. It was planned as a Raleigh city high school, but was built after the city and county school systems merged. Under the merged system, the school system built the school, and the city kept part of the land and built the stadium on it. The stadium land is within the boundaries of Raleigh’s Lake Johnson Park.

The county had responsibility for the upkeep of the school and of the stadium, but because the stadium is inside a city park, the city limited improvements the county could make there.

In 2011, advocates for the stadium upgrades persuaded the city to amend its master plan for the park to allow for improvements. The next step was to find the money.

Several times, the school board appeared ready to fund the work but then dropped it from its plans.

The issue heated up recently when the school board proposed paying for the improvements with money from bonds being sold this spring. When they made the request to commissioners last month, former chairman Paul Coble said bond money should be spent for work that would add capacity to schools, not for a stadium.

But Coble changed his mind about the project when he learned that the stadium’s problems were a safety issue. He says that should be taken care of immediately and not out of new bond funds.

He and other commissioners reiterated that on Monday when Joe Desormeaux, assistant superintendent for facilities for the schools, asked them to approve the plan.

Keith was not at the meeting but said he was happy to hear the work is going forward. Supporters had hired an attorney and were reluctantly considering a lawsuit.

“We didn’t want to do that,” Keith said. “What we really wanted to do was convince people to do the right thing. We had a pretty compelling case. We finally convinced them.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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