A deal in which Columbia, Tenn., officials agreed to assume maintenance of a public school ball field in exchange for land on which to build a new fire station has some school board members concerned.
Under the agreement, drafted four years ago, Columbia’s parks department is tasked with maintaining the athletic facilities at E.A. Cox Middle School along Bear Creek Pike, according to The Daily Herald of Columbia.
However, Maury County Public Schools board members say the property is not currently kept up to typical standards of operation.
MCPS and the city will soon review a memorandum of understanding regarding the maintenance of athletic facilities used by students. The memorandum was initially drafted in 2017, as the city government sought land adjacent to the school to build a new firehouse in an area that was previously underserved by the department.
A total of about 40.7 acres of property owned by the school district was granted to the city to build the new fire station and establish an accompanying green space. The resulting firehouse, Columbia Fire & Rescues’ Station No. 3, is now completed and operating on land granted to the city by the school district.
In exchange, the municipal government agreed to upgrade the school’s athletic fields to “normal city standards,” including upgrading the campuses’ playing surfaces, bleachers, netting and dugouts.
When the deal was complete in 2017, Columbia’s City Council authorized $3.2 million to build the new station. It saved close to $1 million by trading the land in exchange for the city to install traffic lights to improve traffic flow, maintain the athletic fields and develop a nature trail and nature center.
The city has also built a walking trail on the land, but school leaders are concerned about the maintenance of the athletic facilities used almost exclusively by its students.
Under the newly proposed memorandum of understanding, the school district would add the stipulation that sports and activities sanctioned by or related to MCPS will be given preference over any other activities and states that no charges shall ever be levied against the board or any individual school related to the use of the property being conveyed or any facilities constructed upon said property.
School board member Chad Howell said the city has chosen not to maintain the facilities to an acceptable standard, though he did acknowledge that the city installed a new lighting system for the field.
Columbia Parks and Recreation director Mack Reagan told The Daily Herald that work on the fields has been delayed in recent months due to weather and added that the property's frequent use has prevented the city from spraying the fields for weeds.
"I am completely shocked," Reagan said of the board's dissatisfaction. "We have not heard anything about it from the school. They are only used by students from Cox. We put more money there than most of our fields. We have the same people working on all of our fields. Are we behind? Yes. Once we spray it, it will look perfect."
He said the city has invested about $40,000 annually into the field and is working on installing new restrooms at the site.
“Personally, I don’t agree with them having our fields and maintaining our fields,” Howell said. “The city of Columbia does not use those fields in their repertoire. If they can’t meet our standard in a timely fashion, then I would request that they give that back to us. I am not interested in an MOU. I am interested in getting that land back for us. That way, we can have complete control over it. I just don’t see this being a fruitful endeavor.”
"If they want them back, give me a call," Reagan said. "I think there is something else involved."
Reagan said the city has invested more than $200,000 in the facilities at the middle school and the city continues to move forward with plans for restrooms, a nature center and a nature pond.
"We want it to be a place for kids to experience something special," Reagan said. "Cox is important to us. If MCPS wants them back it would save us a lot of money."
Jake Wolaver, MCPS attorney, recommended that the board formally request that the ownership of the facilities at E.A. Cox to be returned to the school district.
Kristen Parker reminded fellow board members that the school system relies on city facilities to host athletic programs at another campus, including Whitthorne Middle School, which uses Columbia’s Fairview Park to host baseball practices.
Students also use tennis courts at Woodland Park to practice.
“We might want to be a little careful about biting the hand that feeds us when that is the only facility that we have to offer unless we want to come up with a different solution,” Parker said, as reported by The Daily Herald.