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Community member raises questions about Central’s ADA compliance

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A community member alleges the Central School District is not compliant with sections of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). The complaint focuses on a lack of handicap accessible parking as well as access from the street into the school, which school and city officials stated can be tricky to address.

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

 

The latest Elkader City Council meeting began with community member Jade Beck opening a dialogue with the council concerning Beck’s claims the Central School District is not compliant with sections of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). 

 

At the center of Beck’s allegation is the school’s noncompliance with Title II of the ADA, which requires “state/local governments to give people with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from all of their programs, services and activities. State/local governments can’t deny people with disabilities the chance to participate or make them participate in different programs than available to others.” 

 

Beck stated in a separate conversation, “My complaint is with the lack of handicapped accessible parking. Offering none at a public school is the issue of non-compliance I am concerned with.” 

 

Beck did not offer any further specific complaints, instead simply suggesting researching the ADA.  

 

According to Beck’s statements in front of the council, the issue was brought to the attention of Central Superintendent Nick Trenkamp during her effort to get on the agenda to speak in front of the school board, something Beck claimed was not approved. 

 

Trenkamp, who was not in attendance at the meeting due to recovering from illness, corresponded via email to address what was alleged at the council meeting. He offered a timeline of events regarding conversations with Beck, which date back to Nov. 15. 

 

It seems getting on the agenda is not as simple as being placed on the agenda, as Trenkamp cited board policy 213.1 Public Complaints, which would need to be followed before Beck’s concern could be placed on the board agenda. The two met on Nov. 17 to discuss the concerns. 

 

From there, Trenkamp asserted he followed up by emailing Elkader City Administrator Jennifer Cowsert and Public Works Director Jason Scherf to discuss possible solutions. According to Trenkamp, there has been no further communication from Beck since that meeting.

 

During the council meeting, Beck stated several concerns about the school’s level of noncompliance, even referencing the remodel for which “the community spent multiple millions of dollars to make the school ‘quote, unquote handicap accessible,’ and that hasn’t been done. And so, I think that was kind of a failure on the school board.”

 

She said some of that failure lies in the fact there are no handicap parking spaces around the school, the lack of access during events, which funnels everyone to the main entrance, and the general noncompliance of some sidewalks surrounding the school, making them difficult for wheelchair access. 

 

Trenkamp disagrees, in part because he maintains the school is ADA compliant and also because some of Beck’s concerns are not the responsibility of the school itself, but the city, namely the lack of handicap spaces around the school. 

 

In addressing the compliance issue, Trenkamp argued the school building is in compliance, despite a statement made at the council meeting by newly-elected but not yet sworn in member Bob Garms, who suggested the “school has never been compliant.” 

 

According to Trenkamp, nearly 100 percent of the school was made handicap accessible during the remodel, aside from the high school locker rooms due to their location. 

 

During the remodel, sidewalks were fixed and part of the street was repaired due to wear and tear and an elevator was added, eliminating almost all previously inaccessible portions of the school. Additionally, Trenkamp noted both the state inspector and fire marshal signed off on all spaces where work was done, essentially ensuring they complied. 

 

Trenkamp reiterated the parking immediately around the school is city parking, therefore, the school is not responsible for making spaces handicap accessible, and he’s not exactly wrong on the topic. 

 

Cowsert affirmed the parking spots are the city’s responsibility, though she added that sidewalks, ramps and entrances fall to the school. 

 

Trenkamp responded to that by stating, “the sidewalk into our entrances is ADA compliant,” but acknowledged getting onto the sidewalk from the street may not be. Who is responsible for that is slightly more ambiguous, but it might be irrelevant anyway.

 

One problem is you can’t just make handicap spots or create handicap accessibility, and the city and school might not even have to. On the issue of making sidewalks compliant, Cowsert pointed out the problems associated with the level and grade of the roads, which complicates the situation. One can only do so much with a slope. 

 

Cowsert alluded to the impossibility of doing so, stating, “there really isn’t such a thing as making a street compliant retroactively. Even in new construction, you can only do so much with slope and grade. We aren’t required to go back and make the street compliant and, in many cases, we can’t due to the grade of the street.  The school is also limited in their ability to make sidewalks compliant due to the topography. Sometimes the required slope would require a switchback that is so long it couldn’t be constructed.”

 

Concerning access from the street onto the sidewalk, Cowsert again cited complications. “We are not required to reconstruct a street to make it accessible, and we are not required to make a street accessible because sometimes you can’t. So I think the street is not really something that has to be accessible. It can’t always be accessible. The best that can be done is to make the sidewalks accessible,” she said. 

 

Trenkamp believes it is ADA compliant, but on another of Beck’s complaints, that the school parking lot is required to have at least one handicap parking spot, Trenkamp admitted it does not. Central is working on a solution, however, the issue remains the street between the parking lot and the school, which does not allow for ADA compliance due to grade. While the school could create a handicap spot, gaining access to the school from it would be difficult. As Cowsert previously stated, the city would not be required and could not functionally make the street comply. 

 

The issue of accessibility for events was also raised, as well as the potential liabilities involved in having doors locked and only one access point into the building. Again, Trenkamp cited safety and liability issues involved with leaving other entrances open during after school events and the need to bring people through the front entrance for ticketing purposes and to keep them out of education spaces. 

 

The main entrance is where Beck drops off her son, who is in a wheelchair, in the designated drop-off zone. According to Trenkamp, staff is waiting to assist. He also noted that it is not designated as a handicap spot due to the grade of the city street, something Cowsert also alluded to. “I know the front entrance has a slope that is too severe and there is not enough space to make it accessible,” she said. 

 

The city is looking into possibly creating handicap spaces around the school, but where they will be is currently undecided. Trenkamp noted both Cowsert and Scherf “have been very receptive to working together to address handicapped parking around the school.”

 

Beck is currently discussing the matter with the Department of Education and remains adamant the school is not compliant. She is seeking a positive resolution that benefits the entire community.

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