Maybe Elma High School’s football team won’t be playing its home games at Davis Field after all.
During a sometimes-contentious meeting in a packed meeting room, the Elma School Board decided to form a committee to seek a new recommendation that could quite possibly see Elma move its home games to Aberdeen’s Stewart Field for the foreseeable future rather than play in a facility with no bleachers to accommodate hundreds of fans.
The decision came after longtime head football coach Jim Hill challenged the district for its lack of a real plan in helping fans see the games.
“Do we call the visiting team and say, ‘By the way, if your parents are coming to the game, please bring a lawn chair? Is that where we’re at right now in the Elma School District?” Hill told the School Board.
Since the School Board made the decision to tear down the aging and unsafe 800-seat grandstands back in 2013, the board members and district officials made it clear that a bond measure to build a new stadium was an “all-or-nothing” decision for the district. The grandstands had become a huge liability and had to be torn down. Minus a new stadium financed by a bond measure, the district had no money to replace the seating.
When the bond measure failed by a significant margin in February, district officials made it clear in numerous media reports since then that seating was going to be a big issue.
Then, in April, based on the recommendation from a high school committee, district Superintendent Howard King, with input from the soccer and football coaches, the school board decided to play the 2014 home football games at Davis Field with the hopes that most fans would provide their own seating or stand to watch games.
It’s been a quandary that the board and district officials have been wrestling with for almost a year now with little community input at its twice-monthly meetings.
That all changed Wednesday night when a large contingent of football boosters — led by Hill and Tom Huttula, president of the Elma Football Boosters — confronted the school board about it’s decision, just two months prior to a new football season.
“There’s no plans from our school district to bring in any portable seating for the coming season. I wasn’t aware of that,” Hill said. “Why are we having home games? Why are we not traveling somewhere else to play where people can watch? Who made the decision? Where did that come from? … It’s absurd, and for this district to expect us to do that is absurd.”
Board President Carl Jonsson noted that former Athletic Director Rick Rakevich and others on a committee had talked to all the coaches about their sentiments, determined they favored the idea of playing their games at Davis Field, and the committee forwarded that recommendation to the board, upon which it based its April decision.
Hill said there must have been some sort of lack of communication, stating he never would have sought games at Davis Field had he know about the seating issues.
“My understanding, and Rick’s not here to defend himself, is that he asked several coaches and you guys talked about it,” replied Jonsson.
“Rick (Rakevich) asked me what I wanted to do,” replied Hill. “If I wanted to have home games. I said, ‘Yes, I want to have home games, Rick, but what are we going to do for reserved seating? What are we going to do about the seniors? What are we going to do about grandmas peeing in the porta-potties? What are we going to do about the band? If there’s no seating … I would travel every game next year if that’s what it took. Do I want to have home games? Yes, but the district office, Rick, needs to figure out where these people are going to sit. If we can’t sit them anywhere then, yes, I would travel every single game.’ That conversation took place with Rick Rakevich, Howard King and (Elma High Principal) Kevin Acuff. … I wish those three people were here. They would verify that.”
King and Acuff were both on summer vacation last week and not present at Wednesday’s meeting. According to Elma district officials, King is and has been “out of the country” and unavailable for comment.
Tom Boling, the district’s transportation supervisor and an Elma city councilman, was at the meeting and on the committee that made the recommendation to the board.
“Howard wanted us to make a recommendation to the board,” Boling said. “Rick (Rakevich) said the coaches wanted to play home games. We made a recommendation to the board that we were going to have the home games based on using the six bleachers we have that are small, which we later found out (are not up to state standards), but we think we can retrofit.”
“But that was not my choice,” Hill replied.
“We didn’t know that,” Boling said.
“But Rick and Kevin and Howard did,” stated Hill.
“Our decision was based on the report we got,” said Jonsson.
That’s when things began to get a little tense in the board room.
“This is epic failure at its finest. This stinks from the head down,” said one audience member.
Board member Larry Bridenback defended the board’s decision and seemed perplexed on why there was such outrage so late in the process.
“I have said, since we started running bonds, when the stadium came down, there’s no money if the bonds don’t pass,” Bridenback. “There’s no money to put in any stands. I have said that from the word ‘go.’”
“So, where was our backup plan?” said Hill, who had never attended any of the previous board meetings in which the fate of Davis Field had been discussed and debated at length. “There never was one.”
“I talked to people about taking (home games) to Aberdeen, but we were told they wanted home games,” replied Bridenback.
That’s when Huttula stood up.
“I’ve been very close with Jim on this, and he’s never been of the opinion that we would play home games without temporary seating,” said Huttula. “The only person I’ve ever heard say anything about playing home games in Elma on Davis Field without bleachers is Mr. King. In fact to quote him to me to my face … was, ‘No. We’re not moving those games to Aberdeen or anywhere else. We need the community to see what it’s like to be in this situation, then they’ll come to us with what they want. They didn’t pass the bond three times.’ Now, I don’t know if anyone else has heard Mr. King say that, but I have, to my face. Jim Hill never made that statement. Mr. King made that statement. This is going to turn the people who voted yes for the stadium into haters. The gap is between the three athletic programs — the two soccers and the football – and the board, and Mr. King’s the gap.”
“I was absolutely flabbergasted to hear that there was no desire or research to do anything to put seating in there,” added Hill.
“I think we did that, but we didn’t have money,” replied board member Teresa Boling.
“We made our decision based on the recommendation,” reiterated Jonsson.
“Can the decision be changed?” said Hill
Huttula: “I don’t believe that was the recommendation.”
“Nothing’s in stone, replied Jonsson. “This is the first time we’ve heard this.”
“Monday was the first time I’ve heard we were not bringing in portable seating,” Hill said.
Hill then went on to question why there was money to tear down the stadium but none for new seating.
“Where did the money come from the tear down the stadium?” he asked. “Did it come out of the Elma School District reserve?”
“No, it came out of our general fund,” replied Bridenback.
“I was told by our superintendent that it was going to be paid for out of a slush fund.”
“We have no slush fund,” said district business manager Lisa Arnold
Hill said he asked King, who was not at the meeting to rebut, if the money to tear down the stadium was coming from the athletics budget. For the second time, Hill alleged that King mentioned a “slush fund.”
“We did not pay for it out of athletics,” Arnold said. “It was money we had set aside from general levies for roofs, to repair roofs, so we moved that money.”
Huttula again chimed in.
“Well, obviously, there have been mistakes made by everybody from top to bottom,” he said. “The point is that anybody on the school board who is owning the stance of: ‘It’s OK this thing is coming down because it’s going to force the hand of the public to do what they should have done in the first place.’ Because that’s what I got from the superintendent to my face. I’m just asking the board, because I know what the superintendent feels because he told me that, unless he was lying to me for some reason.”
“In the last 10 years we put more than $400,000 into those stands, and when they started tearing it down it was in worst shape than we thought with termites,” said Bridenback, defending the board’s decision.
“It was crumbling,” added Jonsson.
With the tone of the discourse and the mood in the room turning somewhat negative, that’s when Jonsson cut off the comments and decided to form a committee including Hill, Huttula, Bridenback and new Athletic Director Paul Gaskins and come back to the board with its recommendation at the July 23 board meeting.
Based on comments in the room, it seems like they may be targeting Aberdeen’s Stewart Field for home games, at least for next season.
“I’ll call them tomorrow,” said Gaskins, who stayed in the back corner of the room for his first-ever board meeting.
When a member of the audience questioned what will be done about a new stadium, the board members expressed their frustrations at the effort being a three-time loser with the district voters and noting that most of the people present had not been to any of the meetings at which these topics were discussed at length.
“When people contact me about this by phone or on Facebook, I tell them, ‘My opinion is if you want something done, set up a committee and we’ll get you a meeting room and you tell us what you want.’ So far, nobody’s gotten back to me,” said Bridenback.
“We talked about getting people together for our campaigns. I’ve been doing this for a long, long, long time and I get really tired of it, and that’s my biggest thing,” said Teresa Boling. “People need to help. When we had our big meeting to decide about where to play or what to do about the stadium, all those people scattered. When it came to the election, we’re sitting around with us five. That is not how this town should be run. If we want something, everybody has to help. You call your neighbors and have them help, but don’t just sit here and say, ‘Well you didn’t do that and you didn’t do that.’”
After the meeting, Hill declined to say why this issue was coming as a surprise to him when it had been discussed at numerous board and committee meetings and had been reported on numerous times in both The Vidette and The Daily World.
“I’m not going to contribute to your gossip,” Hill said.
Meanwhile, Tom Boling, who attends almost every school board meeting, was standing nearby and expressed his frustration.
“Where were all these people three and four months ago?” he said. “This could have been done in the beginning instead of coming down to all this drama.”