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Awning vs. athletics?
Priorities questioned Superintendent says officials trying to juggle small amount of money for special needs, sports

By Bayne Hughes 340-2432

Sparkman School bus driver Ann Miller and bus aide Michelle Hogan try to keep their physically disabled students dry when loading and unloading on rainy days.

But Miller said it's difficult because the school doesn't have an awning covering its bus drop-off area. Her bus carries children to the Massey, Roundtop and Falkville communities and includes one special passenger, her son.

"We can use an umbrella, but we still get soaking wet," Miller said. "A lot of these students are medically fragile and can't handle the weather like other children, so we end up with a lot of illnesses and hospitalization."

So, Miller and Sparkman Principal Ronnie Moore don't understand why county school officials want to install only a third of the awning project for $7,500, while spending $100,000 on Priceville High School's football bleachers.

"I think they can afford to do all of the awning and, at the same time, do the bleachers at Priceville," Moore said. "To me, these mentally and physically handicapped children ought to be the priority."

Sparkman is the bus hub for the county because of its central location. Buses carry students to Sparkman, where they catch buses to the Morgan County Learning Center and Brewer High's technical school.

Every day, 11 buses from every school in the county bring about 60 mentally and physically handicapped and special-education students to Sparkman.

Monday afternoon, it took between five and 10 minutes to load the children.

When it rains, Moore said, it takes 20 or 25 minutes, as bus drivers and aides load or unload students while trying to keep them dry.

"The buses jam up the traffic, parents get frustrated because they're trying to get their children to school and get to work on time," Miller said.

In January, Director of Maintenance and Transportation Bruce Kimbrell presented the school board with a plan to spend $116,000 of the capital project money the school system receives from the state.

Kimbrell wants to spend about $100,000 to build a portion of visitors' bleachers at Price-ville High School's new football field.

He estimated completing the entire project would cost about $250,000.

He proposed spending about $7,500 to install 87 feet of awning at Sparkman.

Since $7,500 allows the school system to avoid going through the bid process, he already has a contractor scheduled to begin the project almost immediately.

Kimbrell said the entire project would cost about $22,000.

Morgan County school officials say they're not pitting special education against athletics or school against school.

Superintendent Bob Balch said they're trying to deal with the small amount of money they have and there are several unfunded projects in every part of the county.

"All of the kids in the school system are of equal value, and we're not playing one school against another," Balch said. "We're not saying bleachers are more important than kids loading in the rain. That's silly. All of our kids are important."

Both schools are in school board President Jimmy Dobbs' District 5, and he said the Sparkman project is already in the works.

"We're not putting one school ahead of another," Dobbs said. "We're starting the project at Sparkman. The contractor bumped it up over another project he was to do."

School board member Carolyn Wallace said she's not so sure that plan will remain in its current form. The school board meets Thursday at 5:30 p.m., and she said several board members are concerned about the order of the priorities.

"The awning needs to be done for the handicapped kids," Wallace said. "The football stands need to be done too, but we may not be able to do as much as we'd like to do."

The Priceville stadium has been on the to-do list since the school board reformed Price-ville High in 2001. At the time, school officials promised the community it would make sure the school would get academic and extracurricular facilities similar to those at other county schools.

Stadium construction has been slow. After playing home games at other county schools during its first football season three years ago, Priceville played with portable bleachers in its second year. Teams dressed at Priceville Elementary. The school board built home stands and added lights before the 2005 season and a concession stand with dressing rooms before the 2006 season.

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