Will Americans with Disabilities Act cost Sullivan schools nearly $15 million?

Rick Wagner • Aug 9, 2018 at 7:30 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Is Sullivan County’s school system on the hook for almost $15 million because of Americans with Disabilities Act and fire safety compliance requirements?

Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski says no for multiple reasons, but Board of Education member Mark Ireson maintains it is a major looming issue, one that could take available funding from the new county high school.


The potential ADA cost was the largest item in a laundry list of about $21 million worth of what Ireson called financial liabilities that needed to be considered before the school board approved the construction contracts totaling more than $59.7 million for the new West Ridge High School. He said one liability was more than $1.1 in potentially mishandled federal funds, although Rafalowski and Business Manager Ingrid DeLoach said that simply isn’t true and provided copies of clean audits.

“I hope that they are right. I fear I am,” Ireson said Aug. 3.

County Commissioner Angie Stanley has mentioned ADA compliance as a big money issue facing schools and all of county government.

The Board of Education during a called meeting on Aug. 1 approved the contracts on votes of 5-2 for the main contract and 5-1 with one abstaining for a separate outdoor athletic facilities contract of $4.8 million. The latter will require county commission approval to use fund balance; the main contract, paid for by already approved and bond funds in hand, will not.

Ireson said almost $15 million would have to be spent: about $9 million for the Americans With Disabilities Act and another $5.6 million for fire safety mandates of the federal government. A report on that is to be filed in September, but Rafalowski referred to a Nov. 14, 2016, letter to County Mayor Richard Venable that said documents must be completed showing a final plan or significant progress toward a final plan.


Ireson said that the Tennessee Department of Transportation is pushing that the ADA be met in any government building where 50 or more people work, but Rafalowski said a letter from TDOT says federal transportation funds can be withheld unless every city and county with 50 or more employees has an ADA Transition Plan and Self-Evaluation.

However, Rafalowski said the website adachecklist.org plainly states that requirements to meet ADA would not be required of governments if it would cause “undue financial and administrative burdens.” She said a three-inch-thick October 2014 binder by Beeson, Lusk & Street, part of the Dejong-Richter facilities study, found ADA noncompliance at almost all schools and put a dollar value on them.

Ireson did not say Aug. 1. where he got his ADA and fire figures, but Rafalowski said the Beeson document has a school-by-school listing. Ireson Friday said he based his figures on all schools in a separate three-inch report from a 2014 study mostly on plumbing and some HVAC. 

“I did all of the schools,” Ireson said, because he wasn’t sure which would close if the new schools open as and when planned.


However, with all current middle schools or middle school sections of K-8 buildings planned to close after the new Sullivan East Middle opens in 2019 and West Ridge High in 2020, those schools won’t need to achieve ADA compliance. In addition, Rafalowski said the law exempts from the 2010 ADA standards any buildings constructed or with major renovations prior to March 15, 2012 as long as they met the 1990 standards.

She said that would include Ketron Elementary School, although it meets almost all ADA requirements. But she said putting an elevator in the middle school portion of Sullivan Gardens K-8 to reach lower-level rooms not used would make no sense since the school is to cease being a school in 2020, nor would putting a $250,000 elevator in Blountville Middle, shown in the Beeson document, since it is to close, too. Other middle schools planned to close are Bluff City, Holston Valley, Colonial Heights and the middle school parts of Holston and Mary Hughes, the last two K-8 schools.

Rafalowski at Tuesday’s BOE meeting provided the board with a packet that included a cover page Practices, Improvement and Action Compliance Plan.


Ireson said the sewer issues at Sullivan East Middle and Sullivan East High could cost $3.5 million combined. Rafalowski said the East Middle line should be ready for bid later this month, and that if the middle school is hooked onto a sewer, the system would look at putting the high school on sewer instead of a treatment plant.  


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