After being the subject of a heated discussion at both the Hawkins Co. Board of Education and Commission Budget Committee meetings, the Commission voted 13-8 in favor of the $1.25 million cost of artificial turf at two of the county’s high schools.

However, this decision was not made without vehement opposition from several commissioners and support from parents involved in VHS sports.

Work will begin on VHS’s turf immediately with the goal of having the field ready to use for this fall’s football season.

The funds for the purchase are coming from the school system’s undesignated fund balance as part of the 2019-2020 fiscal year.

“It’s been a nightmare since it was built”

As the Review previously reported, the school board voted to purchase artificial turf due to the extensive drainage problems on the VHS field that have deemed it “unsafe.” Rather than spend $240,000 to repair the sod and drainage problems at VHS (with no cost at CHS), the BOE voted to proceed with turf at both schools.

Alderman Keith Gibson, who was on the original VHS staff and also coached at the school, reminded the board that the field was originally built on a “sink hole,” which contributed to its drainage problems.

“When they put that field in, there was a huge cavern under it,” he said. “They had to fill it in with tons of rock, and that thing keeps settling. Keeping it in playing condition has been a nightmare ever since it was built.”

Hixson told the board that he recognized that cost of the turf would be a “lot of burden on the taxpayers,” but would go towards keeping students safe while playing sports.

“This has been a long time coming,” he told the board. “The field condition is not a coach’s fault or staff fault. It is believed that the drainage had been collapsed for many years prior to me coming here.”

He also agreed with Gibson, noting that “sublayers under the field” have caused problems for years.

In an effort to fix these problems, Hixson noted that these drain lines were recently replaced with larger, PVC drains that will properly drain the water away from the artificial turf.

Offsetting the cost with sponsorships

Hixson told the commission that some of the $1.25 million could be offset by community sponsorships.

In fact, he already already met with a committee from both Cherokee and Volunteer to discuss plans for attracting these sponsorships.

He reminded the commission that, when the school system first began considering turf around a year ago, they already had $500,000 worth of sponsorships “ready to sign.”

“It is my belief that we’re going to see a large amount of this paid for from companies and industries that support our schools and students,” he said.

Several commissioners speak out against turfSeveral commissioners spoke out in opposition of the purchase, both at the county commission meeting and the aforementioned budget committee meeting on June 15.

Commissioner Valerie Goins told Hixson at the budget committee meeting, “I don’t feel that this is the right time,” to purchase turf, noting that the school system just recently voted to close two schools and the fact that COVID-19 has had numerous negative financial impacts.

She echoed those same sentiments at the full commission meeting and extensively questioned Hixson on the financial impact of the purchase.

“The teacher’s raises were cut completely out (of the state’s budget),” Goins said. “I feel this sends a signal that we’re more interested in our football fields than we are in our teacher’s salaries.”

“I want to go on record saying that we do not prioritize sports over academics, and we don’t prioritize sports over teacher salaries and taking care of our staff,” Hixson replied.

He also noted that he and the BOE plans to revisit teacher raises in October with the hopes of giving a one-time bonus since the 2% salary increase in Governor Lee’s budget was eliminated across the state.

Commissioners Larry Clonce, Charlie Thacker, Jeff Barrett and Nancy Barker also spoke out against the purchase and questioned Hixson about it.

Parents speak outSeveral people involved in VHS sports were present at the meeting to speak in favor of the turf.

Their spokesman, April Hill, told the board that she had recently called several commissioners over the issue.

“It was the first time I’ve ever called a commissioner, ever,” she said.

Hill pointed out the fact that the field has been deemed ‘unsafe.’

“Our boys will not get to play football this year if you all don’t pass this,” she said. “We will have to travel for away games. Who’s going to pay for that? Is the football team going to have to pay for the busses? It is not fair for our team not to get to play this year. Is it fair for senior boys not to get to have senior night on their home field?”

She also noted that the school’s band would lose money from the concession stand.

“For our students and their education, it’s worth it,” she said. “They’re our future.”

Cherokee in favor of turf

CHS football coach Cody Baugh was also present at the meeting and spoke in favor of turf.

He noted that he and the other coaches have put in countless hours to maintain their field, but they are all in favor of turf.

“It would allow me and our coaches to spend more time with their families,” he said.

He also noted that the field would benefit nearly every sport that the school offers in some way as well as the band, NJROTC, the feeder schools and PE classes.

“There are so many endless opportunities that can be taken care of on that field,” he said. “I think it’s something that needs to happen on both ends of the county.”

“They want to play on their home field”

“If you vote ‘no’ on this resolution, you’re saying ‘kids (the football players gathered at the meeting), you all don’t matter no more,” Commission Chair Rick Brewer told the commission.

“These seniors, I know, are looking for their senior season,” he said. “They want to play on their home field. If you’re worried about taking the heat, the school board has done stepped up and said, ‘We’re going to do this.’ All we’re doing is just approving the amendment. Everybody who called me against this, I told them, ‘you need to talk to your school board member.’”

“It’s the school board’s money”

“I’ve gotten a lot of phone calls—just like a lot of the others,” Commissioner Keith Gibson told the board. “But, the County Commission is not the ones who spend this money. The school board are the ones who voted to put it (turf) in. I’ve point-blank told the Director (Matt Hixson) that I’m against turf. I’ve played on turf, and it’s hard on you. But, I am not opposed to doing this because it’s the school board’s money. It’s just like, if you have a job, you get a paycheck, you take it home with you, and nobody else needs to tell you how you spend your money.”

However, he noted that, if it were money being added in the 2020 budget, it “probably wouldn’t fly.”

Several other commissioners echoed these sentiments.

As aforementioned, the commission voted 13-18 in favor of turf in the end with Commissioners Goins, Barrett, Dawson Fields, Mike Herrell, Hannah Speaks, Donny Tally, Charlie Thacker and Charles Housewright voting against it.