Bentonville board member defends stadium funding
Call them deceptive plays, trick plays, gimmick plays or misdirection plays. Whatever they’re called, these are those rarely used tactics in football and other sports that coaches and their players practice for special situations when the conventional playbook isn’t getting the job done.
There’s also that play perpetually pulled off by Lucy Van Pelt, holder of the football for Peanuts’ Charlie Brown. Year after year, Lucy holds the ball for Charlie Brown’s inevitable kick. And year after merciless year, she yanks the ball away right as Charlie Brown kicks, after which he falls with a thud.
We’re not sure which kind of play the Bentonville School Board made recently with its sudden, unadvertised decision to devote nearly $2 million to construction of a new stadium at West High School. It sure wasn’t your run-of-the-mill maneuver. It qualifies as extraordinarily rare in both the way it was executed and the way it was kept under wraps until it was already in motion. And some patrons of the School District undoubtedly felt a disheartening thud with the board’s Lucy- like, last-second maneuver.
Some board members had stressed that the maneuver wasn’t even part of the district’s playbook. Until it was.
As recently as a few days before Bentonville School District voters went to the polls to vote on another school millage request, board President Travis Riggs rejected the concerns of two former board members who feared a plan to allocate taxpayer dollars to the stadium if voters approved the millage. Riggs said he had “no intent to spend district money” on West’s stadium.
Bentonville West is the district’s second high school. It opened last year in Centerton. It’s the home of the Wolverines, a critter known to be a little sneaky in its pursuit of resources it needs to thrive. School District officials attempted to gain voter approval for a millage increase in 2012 to build the new high school, including its athletic facilities, but 58 percent of the voters said no. In 2013, responding to polling, the school board proposed a smaller millage to pay for the second high school, but not its athletics facilities. It passed, with 70 percent saying yes.
Naturally, though, a high school needs athletic facilities. Athletic programs are a vital part of our educational system, providing a competitive outlet for players but also an avenue for school spirit and culture. District officials managed to find the money for many sports facilities at West, but a football stadium is a major investment.
So, the Wolverines practice at their school, but their home games are on the borrowed turf at Bentonville
High School’s Tiger Stadium. It can safely be said that Tigers and Wolverines do not like to share the same habitat.
“Tiger Stadium doesn’t feel like home,” Wolverine Coach Bryan Pratt told school board members last November. “It’s almost like we’re playing a road game every week.”
Last November, the board discussed spending up to $2 million for the stadium, but put that matter on hold without a decision. Then came the assurances prior to the recent millage election.
So it was quite the surprise July 17, at the start of a board meeting, when Willie Cowgur, the board’s vice president, moved to make the last-second change to the meeting’s agenda. The board added the stadium spending by a 5-2 vote, with Matt Burgess and Joe Quinn voting “no.”
By the evening’s end, Cowgur, Riggs, Rebecca Powers, Eric White and Brent Leas had voted to spend $1,976,000 on the Wolverines’ stadium, a move athletic department officials believe will give their fundraising efforts a boost. Cowgur said the district could use $1.6 million from the sale of 40 acres on Bright Road to Buffington Homes of Arkansas, a sale the board also approved that night. The rest would come from money left over from capital projects funding in the district.
Happening as it did not long after voters approved the millage, it’s easy to understand how the term “bait and switch” came to people’s minds.
“We all know that if the millage had failed, we would not be having this discussion tonight,” Quinn told his colleagues. “So we can say it’s not related, but common sense would tell you that it is.”
Cowgur, responding to questions last week, said the Bright Road property wasn’t put up for sale until April and its sale came after the millage vote. Using that money for the stadium doesn’t change what the millage revenue, as promised, will be used for, he said.
Fundamentally, the aversion to spending any tax dollars on a high school stadium is misplaced. The School District should build a stadium that at least allows the Wolverines to have 7A games there, just as it would spend the money necessary to finish out a school. But they bear responsibility for creating the atmosphere in which they’re being criticized. When Athletic Director Scott Passmore asked permission to start a fundraising campaign in July 2016, a board member told him not to come back 18 months later asking for district money. Passmore didn’t have to wait that long.
Other board members had referred to the stadium project as a luxury, with other priorities in front of it.
Our strongest criticism is reserved for last- second agenda change. A July school board meeting is rarely packed with students, parents and other School District patrons. Taxpayers and school patrons were given no notice of the issue. They should have been given a heads up. Cowgur could have made his proposal for the Bright Road sale revenue and the board could have then taken up the stadium allocation at its next regular meeting. There was no urgency, but even if there was, the school board could call a special meeting.
Giving taxpayers a chance to provide feedback is a responsible step for people elected to serve them. Perhaps the five members who backed this plan were resolute, convinced nothing could sway them. So be it, but part of their job is listening, and they should not assume nobody but their fellow board members have anything important to say.
Whether it was the board’s intent to stifle discussion or not, that was the effect. Board members unnecessarily created some hard feelings that could have been avoided, or at least tempered, by resisting the urge to shut out the public. If it’s a good decision to spend nearly $2 million on the stadium in July, it will still be a good decision at the next meeting.
So raise the rest of that money and build the stadium, but school board members shouldn’t be surprised if some of their patrons throw a penalty flag for improper procedure.