School administrators have closed a path from Lafayette High School to Warhill Sports Complex, citing the danger of students walking down a steep embankment into a boggy area behind the school.
The decision came days after several Lafayette students lobbied the Williamsburg-James City County School Board to maintain funding for the construction of a permanent walkway.
At the Oct. 4 School Board meeting, students described falling into freezing water, young girls walking through the woods after practice and the steep embankment they had to go up and down each day, all in hopes of persuading board members to maintain funding for a permanent walkway.
Students traverse the woods and bog after school because it's the shortest and most direct path between the school and sports complex. Walking to the complex's main building along the roadway would be close to 1.4 miles along Longhill Road and Warhill Trail.
While the permanent walkway is still up in the air, one thing is certain: Students may no longer use the path.
District spokeswoman Betsy Overkamp-Smith said the school administration was concerned about the safety of the trail and officially closed it on Friday, Oct. 7. She said the students had been notified, and the district was planning on posting a sign at the trailhead.
Overkamp-Smith said the district will provide a bus to take students from Lafayette to the complex after school.
Lafayette Athletic Director Andy Linn said he feels stationing a bus to shuttle kids to practice was a good long-term solution, as long as the bus is reliable.
"You've got to have a bus you permanently assign to one school," Linn said. "If you start pulling them off other runs that's when you have a problem"
Linn said Lafayette students had been walking through the swamp to Warhill Sports Complex without incident ever since the complex was built, but he did not want to have an injury under his watch as athletic director.
"We've never had a safety issue, but I've never been A.D. before, and I'm not going to have a safety issue now," Linn said.
Not everyone agreed the bus would be a solution. For students who stay after school to meet with a teacher before practice, the path is the only option.
"We would never be able to take a bus," said Lafayette cross-country coach Drew Mearns, whose runners used to take the path to access the sports complex's trails. "It doesn't make sense for the runners."
"We just want the trail to be open. A bridge would be nice, but we know how much it is going to cost and all the hoops you are going to have to jump through," said Konrad Steck, 17. "We just want the trail to be back opened so we can use it."
Lisa Hatcher, the Lafayette booster club's chairman for the walkway, disagreed with the trail being dangerous.
"Right now the kids will fall, get muddy, their clothing and shoes get ruined, but it is not life threatening or anything like that," said Hatcher. "It's muddy, it's gross, it's not pleasant, but ... it's no threat to them."
A permanent solution
Closing the trail is the latest twist in a years-long saga. To many, the trail represents inequity between the district's three high schools. Advocates for facilities improvements at Lafayette needed to point no further than students slogging through a swamp to get to practice to make their case.
A pathway from the school to the sports complex is in the works, but in September the W-JCC Capital Improvement Plan Committee recommended removing the pathway from the spending plan.
The committee's recommendation is not a dealbreaker for the walkway at Lafayette. At the Oct. 18 board meeting Acting Superintendent Olwen Herron will present her recommendation for the CIP.
The school board can either accept it or make changes, a public hearing will be held, then the board will vote on it, Overkamp-Smith said.
It is not clear what Herron will recommend with regard to the walkway, which is estimated to cost $1.2 million.
"Keep in mind there is a limited amount of funding," she said during a discussion on the walkway at the Oct. 4 meeting.
Herron did not return a phone call Thursday requesting comment on the walkway.
The walkway has been in and out of the district's plans since 2009. In the 2009 CIP, the walkway is scheduled to be built in 2014 for an estimated cost of $75,000.
Last fall the walkway was once again in the CIP, this time for the estimated cost of $1.2 million.
The cost ballooned due to the walkway needing to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to the United States Access Board, a federal agency that develops accessibility standards, "accessible routes" connecting spaces of a facility must be ADA compliant for all standards, including slope, width, surface and areas of rescue assistance.
That means the pathway would need to begin at the top of the steep incline off of the Lafayette track and cross high above the swamp, according to school facilities management coordinator Alan Robertson.
Robertson told the Planning Commission's policy committee last spring it would be considered discrimination to build a new path that is not be accessible for all students.
Question of compliance
Hatcher said the boosters are not asking for the large bridge the walkway has become.
"That is not what we are asking for. We are asking for a simple path for them not to get filthy, just to be able to traverse over the water when it is raining," she said. "We really don't need the Taj Majal for a million dollars."
On Thursday, Overkamp-Smith said if the schools built the walkway, it would have to be ADA compliant.
"We are a public entity, we serve a population that has mobility needs and we would not build a pathway that is not ADA compliant," Overkamp-Smith said.
Board member Sandy Young said the district should build the pathway, and it should be ADA compliant.
"If you are going to do anything, do it right, and do it right the first time," Young said. "This has been going on for how long now? More than 20 years? It just seems ridiculous."
McKinnon can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.
Want to attend?
What: Williamsburg-James City County School Board Meeting
When: Tuesday, Oct. 18 at 6:30 p.m.
Where: James City County Government Center, Building F, 101-F Mounts Bay Road, Williamsburg