Access and equality are powerful words. In an education context, they have the authority to remove obstacles for the disadvantaged and the disabled. Parents and advocates rely on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to secure access to public education for differently abled children. In discussions around public school facilities, access and equality have specific meanings that reference these laws. As such, the terms are generally reserved for those advocates who depend on them.
However, for almost two years, the private fundraising group RJR Home Field Advantage (HFA) has used access and equality in rallying cries to demand a multi-sport stadium for Reynolds High School—but on what grounds?
On February 9, 2018, under a banner declaring “We Believe That Access=Equality,” HFA voiced their outrage about a situation they felt was “NOT RIGHT” and posted a photo of Paisley/Lowrance school construction on Facebook to illustrate their need.
Lowrance Middle School serves disabled students who require specialized resources, supports, instruction and facilities. Since fleeing its previous location in February 2015 amid fears of toxic waste, Lowrance has been temporarily housed in Atkins High School while awaiting completion of a new facility. This construction was the site lambasted in the stadium boosters’ Facebook post.
How clueless can these boosters be?
Having been made aware of their error, HFA posted a clarifying statement the next day which began, “Words matter…”. While it was a step in the right direction, they continued to use Access, Equality, and Equity to try and gain support for a stadium. More than a year after their unfortunate Facebook post, the group’s spokespeople still demonstrate little understanding or respect for what these terms truly mean.
Demand for equal access is not a trump card to be played for material gain or a strategic advantage. But School Board members Leah Crowley and Deanna Kaplan have repeatedly tried this ploy to advance RJR Home Field Advantage’s bid for a stadium, throwing doubt on their integrity in other advocacy efforts. For a district in dire need of equity in education, this is especially alarming.
Typically, a plea for equitable access to public facilities is a reference to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Passed by Congress and signed into law on July 26, 1990, the ADA is the first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities. The ADA protects civil rights for the disabled in all aspects of employment and access to public services such as transportation. It guarantees access to public buildings such as schools, restaurants, stores, hotels and any other facility that is otherwise accessible to the general public.
The word “Access” is key when it comes to demanding civil rights and securing equality for those with disabilities. Slogans using Access and Equality in a fundraising campaign for an athletic facility suggest it might provide physical enrichment opportunities for a disabled population. Instead, the proposed facility is designed for and intends to serve able-bodied athletes who make the cut to play team sports – while fencing off green space that is currently available to all students regardless of athletic ability. So why does RJR Home Field Advantage rally behind Access in their private push for a public stadium?
Their most frequent argument for the on-campus stadium is that transportation to an off-campus field is a barrier to participation in after school sports. While our public schools are required to provide bus transportation to and from regular public school programming and equal access to and from enrichment opportunities, transportation can still be an issue for any student who wishes to participate in after school activities. But demanding that our school district provide a multi-million dollar stadium when a grass playing field on campus would suffice is stretching the term “access” far beyond district responsibility.
An access argument that would justify new facilities would be if current facilities were not in compliance with the ADA accessibility requirements of US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR).
As it happens, there was an OCR complaint against the Wiley gym that is often referenced by Board member Crowley. The complaint focused on a ramp to the Wiley gymnasium and nearby ADA parking spaces. After OCR made a site visit to review the matter, both issues were easily resolved. The remedies did not require or recommend demolition of Wiley’s gymnasium.
Perplexingly, Ms. Crowley has persistently used this accessibility complaint as justification for demolishing the Wiley gym, even though a rebuild of the gym is already secured on the bond schedule. In January 2019, she even tried to use it to get the gym demolished months ahead of schedule. Why would she continue to reference a resolved complaint during multiple board and committee meetings, even after being reminded by legal staff that it is resolved?
We can only speculate about her motives, but one thing is clear: nothing she has suggested would improve handicapped accessibility beyond what WS/FCS Operations staff has already done or planned for the Wiley gym. This will be important to keep in mind as the district’s capital needs are discussed during upcoming budget decisions.