By Maurice Patton
For Chris Poynter, Paul Lamm and certainly numerous others, $500,000 spent recently on athletic facility improvements at nine of the 11 middle schools and high schools in the Maury County system represents “a good start”.
Both Poynter, athletics director for Maury County Public Schools, and Lamm, the veteran Spring Hill baseball coach, are also in agreement that there has to be more to come, if the county’s programs are going to play on a level field – literally, in some cases – with their area competition.
“We need something to fight the battle of the bordering counties, especially the one to the north,” said Lamm, whose Raiders face off regularly against Williamson County teams in District 11-AAA play. “It’s a good start, a phenomenal start. It needs to continue.”
The $500K is the tip of what Poynter expects to be a three- to five-year, $20 million project that, by its end, will bring MCPS athletic facilities into Title IX and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance while addressing safety issues that have been identified. It is the largest financial allocation to athletic facilities by the district since a lighting project that included baseball fields at Columbia Central, Mt. Pleasant and Santa Fe, along with Culleoka’s soccer field, took place in 2015.
“I’m pleased. I’m happy, because we hadn’t gotten anything before,” said Poynter, a 2000 Central graduate who was named county AD three years ago. “But I’m definitely not satisfied. We’ve got a lot of work to do. But I am happy we were able to address what we were able to address.”
From his appointment in July 2017, facility improvements have been high on Poynter’s priority list. Getting that topic on the school board’s radar was the sticking point.
“When I came in, MCPS was working on a strategic plan,” he recalled. “I went to (then-schools director Chris) Marczak and said ‘I’d love to have this done for athletics and arts’. We brought in coaches, brought in community folks, mapped out a course of action, pulled back layers of where, program-wise as a district, we were.
“Narrowing down to athletics, a lot came out regarding what we needed to do to send us in a different trajectory. We’ve got to demand excellence. We’ve got to demand that standard and we’ve got to meet that standard. For me, mediocrity within our district isn’t something that can continue to be tolerated, individually or as a whole.”
After determining a plan during his first year, Poynter through his pupil services department began “leveraging, presenting challenges and issues we face as an athletic community and how addressing these needs will allow us to reach the standards of excellence we’re aspiring to.”
Fast forward two years, to enacting a portion of the plan in the midst of a global pandemic that adversely impacted the funds Poynter would have at his disposal.
“There was budgeting we weren’t able to achieve because of (COVID-19),” he said. “We had to regroup and focus on priorities. … Within our district, the most pressing needs and issues were that we had significant Title IX issues and we had a significant number of compliance and safety issues, like bleachers, and we had a significant number of ADA-compliance issues.
“We had to figure out, how do we maximize $500K and ensure it is spread as equitably as possible across the district based on needs that currently exist.”
Needs were prioritized by each school and submitted to the central office to help formulate a plan. From there, practice and playing fields, seating areas and/or dressing rooms were addressed at all six of the county’s high schools as well as Mt. Pleasant, Spring Hill and Whitthorne middle schools.
“It’ll take us many years and a lot of money to bring us up to Title IX (compliance), but some of the projects will at least get us in better shape,” MCPS board chairperson Bettye Kinser said. “I wish it could be more, but we really felt like it was necessary to do that.
“I don’t know that athletics are in that bad a shape, but we do need to address the Title IX issues – making everything comparable, make things equal and also safe, having things for female sports, for all sports.”
One of the more massive projects took place at Santa Fe, where the softball field was relocated to the front of the campus – making it more convenient to already existing concessions and rest areas.
“The softball field had no lights; baseball had lights,” Poynter said. “There was a Title IX issue with making sure we brought softball up to standards. There were already lights on the rec field, so we’re basically rebuilding them a field, with dugouts and fencing. That was the easiest path to getting them in compliance.”
A soccer field constructed by coaches and parents for Mt. Pleasant Middle School’s fledgling program was upgraded, and will also be used as a football practice field, while a softball practice field was added at Whitthorne Middle School. The Spring Hill Middle School football field was laser graded to address crowning issues.
MPMS was a particular concern because of Title IX, once the late softball coach Andre Baker oversaw the building of a softball field on the campus.
“Coaches will do things on their own when they feel they need to,” Poynter said. “But that’s a Title IX trigger, because baseball doesn’t have a field, football doesn’t have a field. There’s an imbalance as a result.
“Across the county, we’ve put it on coaches and parents and we’ve gotten what we’ve gotten with the imbalances. With soccer, they cut out a field, got some goals donated and did a significant amount of work. But if we own (the facilities), we need to take care of them. We were able to come in and move it out of a flood plain, to a flatter area, put 20 or 25 loads of topsoil on it, level it out, and we’ll throw some grass seed on it in the fall.”
The football field at Mt. Pleasant High School was also graded and new bleachers were installed on the visitors’ side. At Columbia Central, a practice field for rugby and girls soccer was installed, as well as a locker room for girls soccer and softball.
New bleachers were erected for Culleoka’s baseball, softball and soccer fields, as well as for Hampshire baseball and for Spring Hill baseball and softball.
“It’s the first time we’ve received anything, so I applaud them for that,” Lamm said. “When we made the proposal to have our field renovated (last summer), we realized – it’s upward of $300,000 that our diamond club has put into our program since my first year in 2007. We weren’t able to get the field renovation in that proposal, so we had to do our own thing, so I applaud them for doing (this). We helped host the Music City Classic … It’s been fun to see those stands already full.
“We realize there’s a lot of things that have to be happening for money to be allocated. It’s hard to please everybody, but I think they found a little of a middle ground.”
Following this round of improvements, Poynter isn’t completely clear as to the next step.
“There are a lot of significant projects we’ve still got to dive into,” he said. “How the plan moves is ever evolving. I’m going to keep presenting to the board. I think we have a board that for the most part understands we do have great needs in our district and understands the importance of having athletic facilities that are quality, that are safe and take care of the needs of our student-athletes, and that we don’t continue to put the bulk of the weight and responsibility on coaches and parents and the school.
“We became comfortable as a district in saying these programs are going to survive because coaches and parents and schools are going to take on the brunt of the blow to make sure these things happen. … I never have really personally understood that; I just see that’s what we’ve been accustomed to doing.
“I’ve continued to raise the question that we own these properties, no matter who does what or helps assist in doing what. We are responsible for seeing that every facility in every school is ADA-compliant, Title IX-compliant, safety-compliant, and meets the needs of the students that are there, that (coaches) have quality facilities to be able to do their jobs so the programs can do what they need to do.”
Maurice Patton is the editor for Southern Middle Tennessee Sports. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @mopatton_sports.