Fans of Vassar High School football got to watch Thursday’s home opener from a unique perspective – ground level.
On Wednesday, officials from American Athletix – a bleacher inspection and repair company in Muskegon – arrived in Vassar to inspect both the football and high school gymnasium bleachers.
Neither met safety standards.
As a result, the football bleachers (on both the home and away sides) were off limits Thursday evening when fans arrived at the school to watch Vassar’s 50-26 win over Brown City. The press box, though, was occupied during the game.
School officials reached out on Facebook early Thursday, on pages such as Vassar Public Schools, alerting the community to the situation and encouraging fans to bring lawn chairs to the game. By kickoff, several patrons sat on a set of mobile rental bleachers, which had been placed behind one of the end zones. But many sat or stood around the field on the school’s track.
“Safety is our number 1 concern,” said Vassar Superintendent Dot Blackwell. “We’ve been annually inspecting our bleachers and known that there was issues and that we had to take care of it. It would put the district in a bad position and a liability situation if someone were to get hurt.”
The rented bleachers were provided by Bavarian Bleachers, of Frankenmuth, thanks to a $6,600 donation from Frankenmuth’s Bavarian Inn Restaurant and Bavarian Inn Lodge, Blackwell said. The bleachers will be on site for all three of Vassar’s home games this year.
Neither a view from behind the end zone, or at field level, provides as good a vantage point as from bleachers located behind the sidelines. The school district did not charge admission for the game.
American Athletix provided Vassar officials a letter Thursday that stated: “A high number of cracked and broken wood seats and deck boards were identified throughout, as well as considerable corrosion of understructure support frame members. Additionally, he was concerned about guard railings and code compliance.
“Alternative seating should be considered until our office has completed a review of the field data and submitted a recommendation on corrective action, including repair or replacement of the football grandstands.”
The entire letter can be read on the Vassar Public Schools Facebook page.
After receiving the letter, Blackwell contacted the school’s insurance provider, SET-SEG, which in turn told the district to not allow spectators on the bleachers.
“They told us that this obviously made us more exposed to liability, and gave us (verbiage) to share,” Blackwell said. “We actually have annual inspections but we go through and inspect internally, and maintain internally. But an outside third-party (inspection) is done on a yearly basis.”
A statement from SET-SEG, a school insurance agency located in Lansing, is also posted by Vassar Public Schools on its Facebook page. A portion of it reads: “This is the Consumer Product Safety Commission regulation for bleacher inspections as provided to Vassar Public Schools by insurance carrier SET-SEG, ‘CPSC recommends that bleachers be thoroughly expected at least quarterly to identify any structural damage or degradation that could compromise safety. All problems should be corrected immediately. Inspections and maintenance should be carried out in a systematic manner by trained personnel. Documentation of these actions, including the date and signature of the person performing them, should be retained. A licensed professional engineer, registered architect, or company that is qualified to provide bleacher products and services should inspect the bleachers at least every two years and provide a written certification at such time that the bleachers are fit for use.’”
Blackwell said that the full inspection report for either the football, or gymnasium bleachers was not yet available. She did not know how old the football bleachers are, but said the indoor bleachers have been around since 1960. According to a Friday post on the Vassar Public Schools Facebook page, volleyball games will be played in the Vassar High School gym, with chairs being set up for spectators.
Blackwell said the last time the bleachers were inspected was January of last year.
“January 2016, there was issues that we needed to take care of,” she said. “For instance, there were boards that needed to be replaced, little detail-type things that we had to take care of. But not to the extent of this letter.”
The announcement of the bleachers situation came with some controversy, as the inspection came less than a month after the school district’s second failed attempt this year at passing a bond issue aimed at improving school facilities.
“I find it very suspicious that this came out just now,” said Susan Campbell, who resides in Juniata Township, which is in the Vassar Public Schools district. “I wonder, what’s going on here?”
Vassar school district voters rejected a proposed $16 million bond issue on Tuesday, Aug. 8, by a vote of 1,234 to 1,169. The vote came three months after voters shot down a $19.7 million bond proposal by a vote of 1,140 to 937 on May 2.
A flier, provided by Vassar Public Schools, which circulated prior to the Aug. 8 vote, listed “Replace gym bleachers for ADA compliance,” as one of the issues to be paid for by the potential bond passage, but didn’t mention the football bleachers.
Campbell has been a vocal opponent of both bond issues.
“I wonder why they didn’t know (about the bleacher issues), you’d think they would know,” Campbell said. “It seems like they should know that they might not pass inspection. This didn’t happen overnight, they must have known there were some problems that needed repairs.
“And that’s the feeling of a lot of people.”
Blackwell insisted that the timing of the bleacher inspection and the failure of last month’s millage proposal were not related.
“The bond, that’s a situation that’s already occurred,” Blackwell said. “We’re here at school every year, 180 days, we inspect our bleachers, we inspect other things here as well. We inspect our buses, we had a bus that was tagged and we had to take it off the route because of safety concerns. We would do nothing less than make sure our students are safe at all times, and our parents that are coming to these games.”
At a special Vassar school board meeting on Aug. 22, Vassar school board president Randy Middlin told the audience that “We’re not going to do anything until the May vote,” in reference to possibly proposing another bond issue.
In the meantime, the school district will explore additional options in regard to the bleachers.
“We have to go into our general fund and maintenance, and we have to wait until we get a quote,” Blackwell said. “The company that did the inspection will give us a quote, and we will have to get multiple quotes and do a RFP (request for proposal) to our board of education. And then they will make a decision on what we need to do next.”
The Vassar varsity football team has two more home games on its schedule, Sept. 15 against Bad Axe (homecoming) and Sept. 22 against Reese. The junior varsity football team will play five of its last seven games at home.