Siloam Springs Herald Leader

High school graduation to remain at Barnhill Arena

- By Spencer Bailey

On Tuesday, Jan. 17, school board members gathered with district administra­tors for a work session, with graduation being a key item on the agenda.

The infamous graduation venue debate, a seemingly yearly battle over where community members and school leaders believe the high school graduation should take place every year, has once again found itself the primary topic of discussion.

The end result was no action was taken by the board, and graduation will remain at Barnhill Arena on the campus of the University of Arkansas.

Wiggins speaks to board

Superinten­dent Jody Wiggins began by walking board members through the history of the issue.

“I’ve had visitors in my office about graduation venues this year,” Wiggins said. “I’ve had visitors in my office about graduation venues in previous years as well. We have had comments from patrons during the November board meeting, so I wanted to give the board the opportunit­y to talk about the graduation venue.”

Wiggins explained Barnhill Arena was the perfect size for the ceremony, and that the 2021 graduation at Panther Stadium was a one-time thing and the best option for that year given the stringent Covid restrictio­ns at the University of Arkansas.

He continued, saying, “We went back to Barnhill and, I don’t want to speak for the board, but it was my impression from the school board at the time that it was a oneyear thing and we were going back to Barnhill for several reasons.”

Those reasons included concerns about weather and cancellati­on plans, the number of people attending and how that might be limited as well as manpower and cost.

While Wiggins noted that most schools in the Northwest Arkansas area made similar decisions throughout the last few years, Bentonvill­e chose to continue holding graduation­s at their stadium after 2021.

“Bentonvill­e is the one that has kept having their graduation in their stadium after that, and Bentonvill­e High School has had to cancel their graduation ceremony

the last two years and reschedule,” said Wiggins.

As far as weather is concerned, Wiggins noted that getting rained out is a constant threat in May, and that cancellati­on may not only disrupt graduation day plans for families across the district, but it may cause the school to lose any stage rental it makes.

Wiggins then addressed the issue of seating, noting that Panther Stadium only holds 4,000 people, while Barnhill holds somewhere between 9,000 and 10,000. Wiggins estimates that average graduation­s for Siloam Springs have 5,000 to 6,000 in attendance.

“That is a concern for me, is that we might not have seating capacity in Panther Stadium — 301 is the current senior class. We are going to escalate from 300 very quickly. I think it’s on us to do what’s best for the school district long term,” said Wiggins.

He continued, saying “Right now, at 300, with 4,000 seating capacity, you could give every student 13 tickets. That might seem like a lot, but later on, when we get closer to 400, then you’re down to 10 tickets per student.”

Wiggins said at ticketed graduation­s, the district runs the risk of forcing students to make hard decisions about who they can invite, with students from bigger families having a more difficult time.

“I don’t think that 18-yearold kids should be put in that position, to make a choice as to which grandparen­ts can come and which can’t,” said Wiggins. “That, to me, is unconscion­able on us, to make an 18-year-old kid decide which five or six people get to come to their graduation.”

Wiggins then concluded his report on the matter, saying, “In my job, I think it is my position to look out for all of our kids, and to look out for our school district long term. I think the best solution for our kids and for our school district long term is to stay at Barnhill.”

Assistant Superinten­dent Shane Patrick chimed in to note that giving up the slot at Barnhill is a risky move, as they potentiall­y couldn’t get it back, and it is an advantageo­us slot being the first ceremony of the day.

Board members give their opinion

The board was then encouraged to discuss the issue. Board member Grant Loyd was the first to speak.

“I would love to be able to have it at the football field, and in our hometown. I like Barnhill because of the weather, and the tickets, and I feel like it’s easier. I know we’ve heard from people that want the stadium every year, and we’ve heard from people that want Barnhill, every year, across the board,” said Loyd.

Loyd also expressed frustratio­n at the matter, saying, “I guess I have a hard time getting through why this is a continued debate. The important thing is that we get graduates and it’s family time.”

Board president Brian Lamb then gave his opinion, saying that he dislikes the idea of excluding people from graduation, which he believes having tickets will do.

“I’m a proponent of Barnhill for many reasons,” said Lamb. “Somebody’s going to get excluded, and that bothers me. The number one thing when we went to Barnhill was that anybody that wants to can come.”

Lamb said that it isn’t just family that attends graduation; all kinds of community members would be able to attend to make it a truly community-based event if it was at Barnhill.

“It is a district and a school function, but I see it as a community function,” said Lamb. “It is more expensive here, and then the weather situation is a whole other deal to get into.There’s just too many positives at Barnhill, but that’s just my opinion.”

Chris Whorton was in favor of having graduation in Siloam Springs.

“I’m a proponent of having it here in Siloam. I have had many dialogue conversati­ons with those particular­ly in my zone. I haven’t had as much feedback on anything as I have this issue. I had 132 people contact me. Out of those, 130 wanted it in Siloam; two wanted it in Fayettevil­le.”

For Whorton, hometown spirit is an important factor. “There’s just a lot of hometown pride that goes along with graduation. My daughter graduated at the University of Arkansas, and I’ll be honest, I felt like we were herded through like cattle. I didn’t like it at all,” said Whorton.

Whorton explained that the only issue he could see was weather, and he suggested a solution for a rain plan that would include holding graduation in the high school and have family members watch on a livestream.

Siloam Springs parent and former school board member Misti Stephens, who was in attendance at the work session, jumped in to ask about tickets.

“On the ticket situation, isn’t there a way that the kids can turn back the tickets they don’t use and then issue them to the families that need them,” asked Stephens.

Wiggins then explained that in 2021, extra tickets were being sold, and that there isn’t any way the district can force people to give them back.

Board member Travis Jackson then gave his opinion.

“My biggest thing is the weather. “I think if we found a way to be able to do it here, we would do it. I think Jody would agree if we had a legitimate way to make it happen with unlimited tickets we would want to do it here,” said Jackson.

He continued, saying, “That’s where I am. If we could figure out a way to do it, where we have unlimited tickets, here in Siloam Springs, I would say I love the idea. If we could control the weather and say we have it great every year, I would love to be able to do that.”

Jackson also noted that he spoke to his children about the issue, and that they enjoyed graduating at the University

of Arkansas. “I know that’s not for every student and what they think, but I think that there’s no way to guarantee good weather, and I’m opposed to limiting tickets. I don’t want to limit tickets in any way.”

Audra Farrell, the last board member to state her opinion, said she was on the fence.

“The feelings are all over the place. Like you hear here, everyone feels for the hometown, everyone feels for the students, and the parents. The whole event, the whole atmosphere, I mean that’s what it is really all about, and it’s really a tough decision,” said Farrell.

“For right here and right now, I think Barnhill is the best,” added Farrell.

Whorton then made a motion to move graduation to Siloam Springs. No one seconded and the motion failed.

The meeting concluded and, afterward, community members were filled with emotions.

Community reaction

“They offered excuses but no real solutions,” said Tiffany Haynes, the parent who created a petition in favor of moving graduation to Siloam Springs.

The petition, which was started in late 2022, quickly garnered nearly 500 signatures.

“With the apathy and disregard displayed by most of the board members; I can understand why constituen­ts would not come to their board members with concerns, they know nothing will be done,” said Haynes. “Overall I’m disappoint­ed in my school board. I feel they are clearly out of touch.”

Stephens, who felt she was shut down by Wiggins at the work session, said that she was hurt.

“Being shut down was so hurtful, I couldn’t sleep that night. I kept wishing I would have said ‘Pardon me, but this is my Board, you are my superinten­dent and you are paid with my tax dollars,’” said Stephens.

Stephens also addressed Wiggins’ comments about how 18-year-olds shouldn’t have to decide who can and can’t come to their graduation.

“It hit me wrong. Are you kidding me? These 18-yearolds are having to make a lot tougher and more serious decisions that affect the rest of their life than who to invite to see their actual graduation,” exclaimed Stephens.

Stephens says that, more than anything, she’s disappoint­ed.

“It was very disappoint­ing and obviously my opinion didn’t matter, but it should; all of the constituen­ts opinions matter and should be heard. The decisions of the board will not make everyone happy. They can’t. But, when a concern comes up every year, it needs to be addressed and heard.”

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