The Johnston County school system has shuttered the field house at Smithfield-Selma High School after complaints of mold, exposed wiring and a leaky roof.
School system Director of Operations Patrick Jacobs said the school system padlocked the building Feb. 29, a week after parents complained about the health and safety hazards. On March 1, a parent showed the Smithfield Town Council photos of the field house’s many problems.
That parent, Mark Lee, said his son plays on the SSS baseball team, which was using the field house to change clothes until the school padlocked it.
“What I’m asking for is not just a Band-Aid,” Lee told the council. “There’s nothing been done to it ... since 1978 when I played ball. It’s too far gone.”
Lee said the school system should be ashamed of the field house, and he said the school board doesn’t have its priorities in order. “They can give their superintendent a half million to retire and can’t spend $50,000 or $75,000 for our school and the health of our children,” he said.
After Lee’s plea for help, the Town Council agreed to send a letter to the school board asking it to demolish the field house and build a new one if tests revealed mold.
“The students and athletes that attend and visit Smithfield-Selma High School deserve facilities that do not endanger their health and safety,” Mayor Andy Moore said in the letter.
Tests did reveal mold, the system school said this week.
The field house, a one-story brick building with a flat roof, stands behind the far side of the football field and behind home plate of the baseball diamond. The school system built the field house in 1972, a couple of years after SSS opened on Booker Dairy Road. It has not undergone a renovation since then, according to the school system.
The baseball team was using the field house to dress for games, but SSS’s athletic fields are near the Smithfield Recreation and Aquatics Center, where changing space is available for student athletes. The school system and the Town of Smithfield jointly own the SRAC.
The photos Lee showed the council “embarrassed this entire governing body, as it should the entire Johnston County School Board,” Moore said. “Our children deserve more. All students in Johnston County deserve the same types of facilities.”
In a news release, new Superintendent of Schools Ross Renfrow said, “We are sad this has occurred and acknowledge that it should not have.”
“At no time will students be placed in harm’s way while we are in the process of correcting the issue at the field house and are working diligently to bring this facility up to standard,” Renfrow said.
After learning of the field house’s problems, the school system’s Division of Facility Services “began to reconcile the situation immediately,” school district spokeswoman Tracey Peedin Jones said.
The three types of mold found growing in the SSS field house are common, Jacobs told the Johnston County Board of Education at its meeting on Tuesday. “They are present in this room as we speak,” he told the board, which meets in the school administration building on U.S. 70 Business east of Smithfield.
Jacobs said tests indicated highly elevated spore counts for three common types of fungi: cladosporium, basidiospore and aspergillus.
Jacobs likened the molds’ toxicity to a pollen allergy. “They are not harmful to humans except in cases of chronic, prolonged exposure,” he said.
Not a priority?
Jacobs said he toured the SSS campus two years ago with Stephen Baker after Baker became the school’s principal. The purpose of the tour, Jacobs said, was to hear Baker’s priorities for physical improvements on the campus.
At Baker’s request, Jacobs said, the school system removed shrubs in front of the school, repaired the track and poured concrete around the football stadium to make it more easily accessible to the handicapped.
Turning to the field house, Jacobs told Baker the school system could either leave the building alone or raze it, but money for a replacement building was unlikely.
“He said he didn’t want to demolish it unless something else was going to be put in its place,” Jacobs said of Baker. “I told him that you know how those things usually go.”
Jacobs said Baker chose to leave the field house alone. He wanted any available dollars to go instead toward a new softball field, Jacobs said. The school is still waiting on the softball field.
Jacobs said he had heard nothing more about the field house until Lee, the parent, complained. A subsequent inspection, Jacobs said, revealed a hot, humid building with a major roof leak. Jacobs said he sought a quote for a new roof, which came in at $35,000. Jacobs said he ordered the field house closed, but the baseball team continued using the building until the school system padlocked it on Feb. 29.
SSS used the field house only during baseball seasons, Jacobs said. In the nine months between last season and this one, the field house was locked up and unattended, without heating or cooling and with an unnoticed roof leak, he said.
Peedin Jones said the school system was trying to determine how the field house fell into such disrepair. “We as a district are compelled to find answers as to why we are in this current situation and reviewing our processes and procedures to ensure this does not occur in the future,” she said.
Jacobs said the SSS administration should have been inspecting all campus buildings regularly.
That’s the law, Peedin Jones said. “Principals inspect all buildings at least twice each month during the regular school session per (state statute),” she said. “Facility Services inspects all occupied spaces monthly for safety.”
For each campus, the school system completes two yearly inspections for cleanliness and two yearly inspections for both cleanliness and safety, Peedin Jones said. The school system conducts other inspections as needed based on concerns raised by the individual schools.
After laying blame for the field house at Baker’s feet on Tuesday, the school system issued a statement the next day saying it stood behind the principal.
“We support Mr. Baker as principal of the school and have the utmost confidence and faith in his abilities as the instructional leader of Smithfield-Selma High School,” the statement read.
The school system would not make Baker or the school’s baseball coach available for comment.
At Tuesday’s meeting, school board member Donna White asked if the baseball team chose to use the building despite knowing its condition. “I don’t want to comment on that because I’m not aware of that decision making,” Jacobs said.
While the school system has purchased materials for a roof, it has suspended work on the field house. Jacobs said he’s waiting for direction from the school board and superintendent.
“Everything that wasn’t nailed down, we took out,” Jacobs said of the building. “There was wood, couches, some clothing left behind, trash cans and an old fridge.”
Jacobs said a new field house would likely run $1 million.
Board calls for meeting
Board chairman Larry Strickland called for a stakeholders meeting on the field house, with invitations going to Baker, SSS athletic boosters, the school’s advisory council and board liaison Keith Branch. White suggested adding a few outspoken baseball parents, the Smithfield Town Council and the media. The board did not set a date for the meeting.
The school system last did work on the field house in February 2014, when it patched the roof, Peedin Jones said. That same year, parents and other volunteers painted the building’s interior.
Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett