Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Bond or bust (Part 4)

An explainer on athletic facilities in SISD bond proposals

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Editor’s note: This article is part four in a series to find out why Springtown Independent School District’s bond proposals have failed four times in a row. The Tri-County Reporter has interviewed supporters and opponents of the school bond and SISD’s leaders as well as retrieved data about local property taxes and bond elections across the state. So far, this series has covered the history of SISD’s bond elections, the needs at campuses in the district and how property tax bills are deterring voters from approving the bond. This part of the series considers opposition to athletic facilities in SISD’s bond proposals and why district leaders say these spaces are necessary. 

SPRINGTOWN — November 2023 was not a kind election season for school athletic facilities in North Texas.

Independent school districts in Prosper, Eagle Mountain-Saginaw and Lewisville all put propositions in front of voters asking to spend millions to upgrade athletic facilities, and those plans were rejected, though voters did approve other proposals from these districts. This recent trend has led some political analysts to theorize that attitudes about school sports may be changing.

"I think school districts are going to have to do a better job of making the case for why a facility is really needed and why it justifies a community expenditure rather than just assuming everybody loves football, so the voters are automatically going to get on board," Southern Methodist University political scientist Matthew Wilson told Fox4 News in a Nov. 8, 2023, article.

Likewise, Brendan Steinhauser of Austin public affairs firm Steinhauser Strategies told NBC DFW in a Nov. 8, 2023, article that parents may be turned off by athletic improvements and are opting spaces that are more low maintenance.

“When (parents) see millions of dollars going to sports facilities or to things that are kind of less of a priority than academics, you're seeing parents vote and say, ‘We're just not going to say, ‘yes’ to that. We don't need that stuff as much as we need to focus on educating students,’” Steinhauser said in the NBC DFW article.

Judging by comments made on social media, the opinion of prioritizing academics over athletics seems to have made its way to Springtown as well, although SISD didn’t request that voters fund major athletic projects like in Prosper. The requested space for sports activities would have come with a new middle school.

SISD’s failed bond elections in 2023 would have allowed the district to build a new middle school, use the current middle school as a ninth-grade center and convert the current intermediate school into another elementary campus. The new middle school would have included a practice football field, track, competition gymnasium and weight room.

While he supports the more academic aspects of the bond proposal (i.e. — the classrooms and library), SISD taxpayer Andrew Kloster said he didn’t think all the athletic elements were necessary.

“I grew up playing sports, and I support the sports, but when they're saying part of the middle school but the project is listed as ‘weight room, practice football field and track, competition gym, et cetera.’ Well, what does et cetera mean?” Kloster said, referring to the breakdown of the bond proposition on the district’s website. “It says (Texas Education Agency)-required athletic facilities (is) part of the middle school. I think there needs to be a lot more clarification, and I don't think we need anything that needs to be over the top.”

SISD Superintendent Shane Strickland emphasized that the district was not intending to erect a new Porcupine Stadium at the new middle school.

“We're not building a new competition stadium,” Strickland said. “We're building a facility that can be practiced on.”

Furthermore, the superintendent said the absence of those facilities wouldn’t be feasible. Transporting students from the would-be new middle school on Williams-Ward Road on the east side of town to pre-existing facilities on the northwest side wouldn’t make sense for school schedules.

“With the distance between the Student Event Complex and that location for a new middle school (being as far as it would have been), by the time you got student-athletes changed and loaded on a bus and then transported for practices and/or athletic periods, they would lose a minimum of 25 minutes out of a 50-minute period because of travel time,” Strickland said.

SISD leaders also claim the athletic facilities are mandated by a state agency.

“By law, TEA requires that if you have a middle school and you have UIL athletics, you have to have a stadium,” SISD school board member Tootie Hall said. “It doesn't have to be premier. You have to have a field, a track and bleachers. And that's out of our control.”

The Tri-County Reporter reviewed the part of the Texas Administrative Code that covers the TEA and the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for physical education of middle school students and found a section that mandates “age-appropriate physical education equipment” for students in grades six through eight.

“The term ‘age appropriate’ means that the equipment must include a variety of sizes, weights and textures to provide differentiated experiences for various ages and ability levels of students,” the TEKS state. “Basic equipment for quality instruction includes, but is not limited to, the following list: sports balls, including fleece balls, foam balls, tennis balls, beach balls, volleyballs, basketballs, soccer balls, footballs, baseballs, softballs and unity balls; striking implements, including golf clubs, hockey sticks, baseball bats, pool noodles, tennis rackets, racquetball rackets, pickleball paddles, lollipop paddles and ping pong paddles; goals for various sports, including soccer goals and basketball goals; nets and standards for a variety of sports, including volleyball, pickleball, badminton and tennis; fitness-related equipment; other basic equipment, including scarves, bean bags, hula hoops, jump ropes and scooters; classroom management equipment, including cones, mats, pinnies, poly spots and ball inflators; and technology, including microphones, projectors, speakers, heart rate monitors, timers and other technology appropriate for instruction.”

Ergo, students need the proper facilities and spaces to use “age-appropriate equipment” and demonstrate certain physical skills like throwing, catching and dribbling, which are also outlined in the TEKS.

“For example, to use soccer balls and goals, a field is needed to accommodate the size of the equipment and the number of students involved at a time,” SISD Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Tiffany Cano said. “The same would be true for football and any track activities. By including an actual field, we are able to use the field/track for UIL sports AND PE requirements.”

In addition, the subchapter called “Commissioner’s Rules Concerning School Facilities: School Facilities Standards for Construction on or after Nov. 1, 2021,” requires that gyms or physical education spaces called for by a school district’s educational program must be no less than 4,800 square feet at the middle school level.

Strickland pointed out that the new middle school’s facilities would not just be used for sports but for physical education, sixth grade pre-athletic classes, band and color guard practices and community youth sports programs such as football and soccer.

“Even with our gyms, you have so many groups that use those gyms, mainly the PE kids,” he said. “Then your band and your color guard and all those people are utilizing these facilities. It's not just for sports.”

Strickland continued, “A lot of people don't understand the fact that the district is very lenient with our community groups that want to use our facilities, and those people are getting to use those facilities on weekends, at night when we're not occupying them. It's a benefit to the entire community. And again, it's just with the bond packages that we've tried to pass, we've done what is needed and not anything of what was wanted.”

Things are changing at the football field/old stadium next to the current middle school. Strickland said a lot of the fencing has been taken down, and some of the bleachers have been repurposed at the newer Porcupine Stadium.

“There hasn't been any planning for that property up to this point, but we feel strongly that it will be utilized in some way in the future,” he said. “When we begin long range planning soon, I believe there will be some discussion of that area.”

The superintendent’s comments beg a question — what is next for SISD moving forward?

Stay tuned for the next and final part of “Bond or bust” in next week's paper.