Mixed re­views on sta­dium

School Board mem­ber says pub­lic in­put was left out

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - DAVE PEROZEK

BEN­TONVILLE — The School Board’s sur­prise de­ci­sion last week to ear­mark nearly $2 mil­lion to­ward com­ple­tion of a sta­dium at West High School de­lighted some and dis­mayed oth­ers.

The board ap­proved putting $1,976,000 into the sta­dium project, a move School District of­fi­cials be­lieve will jump-start a fundrais­ing cam­paign led by ath­letic direc­tor Scott Pass­more.

Pass­more said he’d likely need to raise an­other $2 mil­lion for ev­ery­thing the school needs to host var­sity foot­ball games on its cam­pus. The var­sity team plays its home games at Ben­tonville High School’s Tiger Sta­dium, seven miles from its Cen­ter­ton cam­pus.

West has some foot­ball fa­cil­i­ties al­ready in place. The foot­ball field in­cludes bleach­ers and a press box on the vis­i­tors side. The vi­sion of a com­pleted sta­dium in­cludes home side bleach­ers and press box, con­ces­sion stands, re­strooms and home and visi­tor ticket booths.

The sta­dium, as it is, is not qual­i­fied to host var­sity foot­ball games, though it is suit­able for prac­tices and games be­low the var­sity level.

Bryan Pratt, West High School’s head foot­ball coach, said com­plet­ing the sta­dium would com­plete the school, which is en­ter­ing its sec­ond year.

“It’s a big deal to our kids. It’s a big deal to our school. It’s a big deal to this com­mu­nity,” Pratt said.

Prin­ci­pal Jonathon Guthrie agreed.

“Peo­ple out here in Cen­ter­ton have been so sup­port­ive of our school. They want a place to come. That’s where this town will be on Fri­day nights,” he said.

Cen­ter­ton Mayor Bill Edwards, who said he at­tended all but one of the school’s foot­ball games last year, said the sta­dium should have a pos­i­tive eco­nomic im­pact on his city.

“Peo­ple will come and eat at our restau­rants and buy gas there and stuff like that,” he said. “I know those games are very well at­tended.”

Some board mem­bers and oth­ers, how­ever, ques­tioned not only whether the board was right to al­lo­cate money to the sta­dium, but also how the de­ci­sion was made.

CON­TRO­VERSY

The topic was not on the School Board’s agenda for Mon­day’s meet­ing. Willie Cowgur sug­gested adding it at the start of the meet­ing,

and the board voted 5-2 to do so. Mem­bers dis­cussed the topic for nearly 40 min­utes be­fore vot­ing 5-2 in fa­vor of the $1.97 mil­lion al­lo­ca­tion.

Joe Quinn and Matt Burgess were the dis­sent­ing votes in both cases.

Cowgur said the district could use $1.6 mil­lion from the re­cent sale of land on Bright Road and an ad­di­tional $376,000 left over in a capital projects bud­get to boost the sta­dium fundrais­ing ef­fort.

“I re­ally think it’s the right thing to do for the district, for Ben­tonville West, for [Ben­tonville High School], for the stu­dents, not only ath­letes but the band, the com­mu­nity, for par­ents of kids who go there. I think it’s the right thing to do,” Cowgur said.

Quinn strongly ob­jected to vot­ing with­out no­ti­fy­ing the pub­lic in ad­vance.

“This was a cal­cu­lated tac­tic to cut pub­lic in­put out of the process,” Quinn wrote in an email to the North­west Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette on Thurs­day. “For me, vot­ing no was vot­ing yes for open and re­spon­sive gov­ern­ment, and it was by far my proud­est mo­ment yet as a school board mem­ber. I have been hum­bled by how many peo­ple have called to say thanks.”

Burgess said dur­ing the meet­ing he’d like to wait and see how the district’s growth pro­jec­tions play out over the next year or two be­fore mak­ing a fi­nan­cial com­mit­ment to the sta­dium.

The district de­vised a fa­cil­ity plan last year based on a pro­jec­tion of 3.5 per­cent an­nual en­roll­ment growth. En­roll­ment re­lates to fi­nances be­cause the state pro­vides school dis­tricts fund­ing on a per-stu­dent ba­sis. Ben­tonville needs about an­other 330 stu­dents to reach en­roll­ment of 17,200 and hit the 3.5 per­cent growth pro­jec­tion for the 2017-18 school year.

District vot­ers ap­proved a 1.9-mill tax in­crease in May to pay for con­struc­tion of two ele­men­tary schools, a mid­dle school and a ju­nior high school.

Grant Ligh­tle, who served on the board from 2012 to 2016, pub­licly ques­tioned the district’s in­ten­tions be­fore the elec­tion, shar­ing his fear the board would put money into West High School’s sta­dium if the mill­age passed. He said he voted for the mill­age in­crease only af­ter district of­fi­cials in­sisted they had no plans to use mill­age dol­lars on a sta­dium.

“I wish I could have my vote back,” Ligh­tle said.

The district is­sued a state­ment im­me­di­ately af­ter Mon­day’s meet­ing re­it­er­at­ing a prom­ise Su­per­in­ten­dent Deb­bie Jones made be­fore the elec­tion that money from the tax in­crease would go strictly to­ward build­ing the four schools.

Ligh­tle scoffed at the mes­sage.

“If you tell peo­ple you need their money and find money for some­thing else, don’t ex­pect them to give you money in the fu­ture. It’s not go­ing to hap­pen,” Ligh­tle said. “Peo­ple un­der­stand the money is all the same.”

Brent Leas, a board mem­ber from Bella Vista run­ning for re-elec­tion this year, was among those who voted for the sta­dium al­lo­ca­tion. Amy Gille­spie, his op­po­nent, crit­i­cized the move in a post on Face­book.

“There’s a rea­son there’s a fun­da­men­tal dis­trust of our school board and this hastily added, no pub­lic com­ment al­lowed, $2 mil­lion ex­pen­di­ture is it,” Gille­spie wrote.

Leas said the board didn’t seek money for a sta­dium in the mill­age elec­tion of 2013 that pro­vided money to build West High School, but added it’s long been the board’s de­sire to find money in the bud­get and com­plete the sta­dium “when it was pos­si­ble.”

In­deed, the topic has come up at past board meet­ings, in­clud­ing one in Novem­ber. Travis Riggs, board pres­i­dent, sug­gested at that time putting $2 mil­lion into the sta­dium project.

Janet Sch­wan­hausser, fi­nance direc­tor, re­quested the board hold off on that de­ci­sion a few months un­til some fi­nan­cial fig­ures be­came more def­i­nite. Board dis­cus­sion of the sta­dium did not re-emerge un­til last week.

COM­PLEX HIS­TORY

The ques­tion of how to pay for West High School’s ath­letic fa­cil­i­ties has been around since be­fore the school was built.

A 2012 pro­posal of 6.7 mills would have raised about $128 mil­lion to build not only the district’s sec­ond high school, but all of its ath­letic fa­cil­i­ties. Districtwide up­grades to tech­nol­ogy and heat­ing and cool­ing im­prove­ments also were in­cluded in the pro­posal. It failed with about 58 per­cent of res­i­dents vot­ing against it.

In re­sponse to a sur­vey months af­ter that elec­tion, 59 per­cent of re­spon­dents said they would sup­port a sec­ond high school at a lower cost than what had been pro­posed.

The district took an­other shot at the is­sue in 2013, this time a 2.9-mill re­quest that would pay for a sec­ond high school but not its ath­letic fa­cil­i­ties. It passed with 70 per­cent vot­ing yes.

West High School, how­ever, ended up with many of the ath­letic fa­cil­i­ties Ben­tonville High School has, in­clud­ing a base­ball and soft­ball com­plex, a field house, a track and a field for soc­cer and foot­ball. Sav­ings achieved through com­pet­i­tive bid­ding and care­ful at­ten­tion to build­ing costs made those things pos­si­ble, said Paul Wal­lace, fa­cil­i­ties direc­tor.

“We ended up putting about 20 al­ter­na­tives into that pack­age just in case we came un­der bud­get,” Wal­lace said. “So with the help of Flintco, with the bud­get­ing and with a good bid on that, we ended up be­ing able to get all of those pack­ages within it. It wasn’t just for ath­let­ics, it was for other items within Ben­tonville West.”

An on­line fundraiser ini­ti­ated last year for the sta­dium project had at­tracted $815 from nine peo­ple as of Fri­day.

AR­GU­ING FOR IT

Re­becca Pow­ers, the board’s only Cen­ter­ton res­i­dent, said she didn’t feel like Mon­day’s de­ci­sion was rushed.

“I feel like we’ve been talk­ing about this for­ever,” she said.

Pow­ers said she’s not big on spend­ing money on sports, but she be­lieves culture is im­por­tant to a school.

“And that culture is not as es­tab­lished when you don’t have your own field and your own games,” she said. “We owe it to the Wolver­ines. We’ve said from the very be­gin­ning this is what we wanted. We just didn’t know how to do it and how to go about it. This seems like the right thing.”

The district had been plan­ning to spend about $1 mil­lion to “neu­tral­ize” Tiger Sta­dium to ac­com­mo­date both Ben­tonville High and West High schools’ teams, Pass­more said.

That cost would have in­cluded adding dress­ing rooms for West High School and changing the turf, score­boards and sig­nage, Pass­more said. Cowgur sug­gested the $1 mil­lion would be bet­ter spent fin­ish­ing West High School’s sta­dium.

Cowgur also re­called the board agree­ing in 2013 to spend $1 mil­lion to help the city of Ben­tonville build a swim­ming pool at the Ben­tonville Com­mu­nity Cen­ter. The pay­ment guar­an­teed per­ma­nent first-pri­or­ity ac­cess to the pool for the high school’s swim team.

The pool is “not even on our prop­erty,” Cowgur said. “This is a cor­ner­stone of a high school.”

Cowgur was among those who voted for the pool ex­pen­di­ture in what was a 4-3 de­ci­sion, which came ex­actly one month af­ter vot­ers had ap­proved the mill­age in­crease for West High School.

Travis Riggs, board pres­i­dent, said he was all for putting money into the sta­dium. He said try­ing to raise all the money nec­es­sary for the sta­dium is a “tough chal­lenge” for Pass­more and im­plied the board was not living up to its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in ig­nor­ing the mat­ter.

“We’re not get­ting the job done that we need to get done,” he said.

Su­per­in­ten­dent Deb­bie Jones said she ap­proved of the sta­dium al­lo­ca­tion. She cited a healthy fund bal­ance, the sale of land that no longer was use­ful to the district and growth rev­enue of $3.7 mil­lion that had not orig­i­nally been fac­tored into the bud­get. The state pro­vides ad­di­tional money to school dis­tricts based on how much their en­roll­ment grows over the course of a year.

She also noted the ex­pen­di­ture doesn’t in­ter­fere with a plan to give teach­ers a 1 per­cent raise this year.

“I would say this is a pri­or­ity need,” Jones said of the sta­dium. “It’s much like an un­fin­ished play­ground, an un­fin­ished build­ing. And why would the district not at­tempt to meet one of their pri­mary needs when they have ex­cess funds to be able to do that?”

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/BEN GOFF • @NWABENGOFF

The Ben­tonville West cross coun­try team runs Thurs­day past the vis­i­tors side press box and bleach­ers at the school’s sta­dium in Cen­ter­ton.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/BEN GOFF • @NWABENGOFF

A view of the vis­i­tors side press box and bleach­ers Thurs­day at the Ben­tonville West sta­dium.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/BEN GOFF • @NWABENGOFF

A view of the sta­dium Thurs­day look­ing to­ward the vis­i­tors side press box and bleach­ers at Ben­tonville West High School in Cen­ter­ton.

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