Metro-East News

O'Fallon coach made 'unauthorized' changes to press box that could cost school $80,000

The press box on the third-base side of Blazier Field at O'Fallon Community Park was built in 2007 with a home-team dugout, concession stand, ground-level storage and a large press box up top. The building is being investigated by the Illinois attorney general's office because additions made in 2010 made it noncompliant with state accessibility laws.
The press box on the third-base side of Blazier Field at O'Fallon Community Park was built in 2007 with a home-team dugout, concession stand, ground-level storage and a large press box up top. The building is being investigated by the Illinois attorney general's office because additions made in 2010 made it noncompliant with state accessibility laws. teschman@bnd.com

It was through a partnership with O'Fallon High School District 203 and aggressive fundraising by its baseball program that the city-owned Blazier Field at Community Park has become one of the best in Southern Illinois.

But additions made behind the roomy press box above the third-base dugout have triggered an investigation by the Illinois attorney general, because they are not accessible to people with disabilities.

It could cost the school district up to $80,000 to install an elevator or have the building torn down altogether.

"At the time the original press box building was constructed in 2007, it had the board's approval, all necessary permits from the city were obtained, and it was completed with full compliance," District 203 Superintendent Darcy Benway said. "Any upgrades made to the building after that were not known to the administration or the board of education."

The press box and concession stand building originally was built in 2007 but fell out of compliance with the the Illinois Accessibility Code when the Panthers' baseball program, under head coach Jason Portz, converted unfinished space above the concession stand into a locker room.

Portz declined requests for comment.

Portz did not acquire permission from the school board or the necessary city permits to complete the additional work later. Water and sewer lines also were tapped for showers and a private restroom without the city's knowledge, Benway said.

The cost of the additional work can only be estimated since some labor may have been donated and receipts for materials may be incomplete. Based on the information Portz provided, Benway said, the unauthorized additions likely cost between $10,000 and $13,000.

The original structure included a concession stand, ground-level storage and the press box. The district contributed $20,000, with the balance paid out of the baseball program's activity fund, which is financed by Diamond Boosters fundraisers.

It was two years later that Portz completed the unauthorized improvements to what had been unfinished space on the upper floor. But it wasn't until 2015 that the city discovered the locker room upgrades and notified the district that it was not finished in compliance with the state accessibility code and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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The press box and concession stand at Blazier Field in O'Fallon were paid for with a $20,000 contribution from High School District 203 and $32,000 from the baseball program's activities fund. The activities fund contribution comes from donations and fundraisers. Todd Eschman teschman@bnd.com

City code enforcement did not levy any penalties against the school district, said Walter Denton, O'Fallon city administrator.

"We go by the Illinois state accessibility code, which in most cases are more restrictive than the federal laws," Denton said. "We want to work with the district to get this resolved."

FGM Architects, which has been paid $3,693 by the district to inspect the building, estimated the cost of making the second floor accessible to people with disabilities at "somewhere between $65,000 and $80,000," Benway said. With the city's blessing, the locker room was sealed off with a padlock, and water service was disconnected.

It was an anonymous tip to the Illinois Attorney General's Office that flagged the OTHS baseball program for still using the improved space for storage.

Neither city nor school officials know when the IAG will hand down its ruling. The possibilities range from simply closing off access to ordering the building razed if it cannot be made compliant.

A spokesman for the attorney general's office confirmed it was investigating but said the office could not comment.

"It's an unusual situation because it is on city property, but we have had an intergovernmental agreement with the district since the press box was built in 2007," Denton said. "It says all the school is solely responsible for all upkeep and maintenance.

"Whatever is decided, they'll have to pay for it," he said.

In the short term, Benway says, the room has been cleaned out and the district is banned from access.

Money raised through the Diamond Boosters through an annual golf scramble, dinner dance, silent auctions and other fundraising events is deposited to the school's activity fund, which is separate from its general operating budget.

Spending oversight is provided by the district's finance office and is subject to an annual audit.

"The district business office monitors transactions to make sure money is used for their intended purpose," Benway said. "It wouldn't look out of the ordinary, for example, if the soccer team raised money and spent it on new uniforms. It would be the same for the purchase of grass seed for the outfield or lumber for the press box."

Benway said she personally reviewed the baseball team's ledger and saw nothing out of the ordinary.

"I saw nothing that would trigger a bookkeeper to go to the administration and say, 'Hey, something is amiss here,'" she said.

O’Fallon District 203 called an emergency meeting for Thursday in O’Fallon IL in Southern Illinois near St. Louis MO after the school board voted this week to cut $1 million from next year’s budget. Students are protesting the cuts, which would el

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