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New bleachers? Shiny lockers? School challenges intensify

May 2, 2015 by

By Patrick Leary -It didn’t take long for the video to go viral.

Arrowhead High School in Hartland had just completed new $662,000 locker rooms for its basketball teams, and posted a time-lapse look at what it billed as “the best high school locker rooms in the country.”

Long tagged as the “University of Arrowhead” by those who are either jealous or critical, the school actually created locker room facilities that many colleges could not approach.

District officials defended the work, saying the old locker rooms were crumbling and a private anonymous donor had picked up more than half the cost. Superintendent Craig Jefson explained it was a sign of the times.

“Look at society,” Jefson said. “They emphasize sports.”

Compare that with the situation facing Case High School in Racine. In April, it began a $200,000 renovation of its field house, which includes a gymnasium and locker rooms. Case is renovating to remove half-century-old asbestos-based paint in the gym floor and in the tiling of the locker room showers. The funding comes entirely from an $8.5 million per year referendum passed by voters last fall.

“You take what you can get in this day and age,” Case athletic director Eugene Syvrud said. “But it’s just a little disappointing when I have to fundraise for basketballs and (other districts) are getting new locker rooms.”

A virtual athletics arms race is going on in some high schools that is widening the gap between the haves and have-nots. As district budgets tighten, school officials increasingly turn to booster clubs, community groups and voters to fund athletic upgrades. Those upgrades, in turn, help make them more attractive to prospective students.

Just last week, the Shorewood School District announced a nearly $1.2 million grant by a community foundation to complete improvements to its high school athletic facilities — everything from concessions to bathrooms to track and field equipment to locker rooms.

For schools that don’t have anything approaching that kind of support — think bake sales, not booster groups — it’s all but impossible to compete.

Equipment, transportation

Although the numbers could change down the road, the budget that Gov. Scott Walker has put on the table would take away $127 million in aid for public schools statewide next year.

In some instances, districts turn to athletics to find savings.

“The allocated money for co-curricular activities, at best, remains unchanged, while expenses for those activities continue to rise,” said Mark Pollex, Greendale High School’s athletic director.

Syvrud said Case and the other two large high schools in Racine, Horlich and Washington Park, will see their athletics budget cut by $15,000 per school in 2015-’16. Even Jefson, who says Arrowhead “probably has the biggest budget in the state” for sports at around $900,000 per year, has to find ways to cut back.

Jefson emphasized the importance of being strategic with cuts and avoiding eliminating entire sports. Cutting a small sport at Arrowhead would save around $25,000, but the loss in students transferring to play the sport elsewhere might offset the cost savings completely.

Instead, districts primarily examine transportation and equipment costs, said Lisa Olson, superintendent of Hartford-Union High School District. At Hartford-Union, the athletic teams have tried to schedule more efficiently.

Jefson said Arrowhead’s football team has stopped playing teams out of state. “We’re curtailing that to play more locally,” he said.

Even changing vehicles can make a difference.

“We use vans as much as we possibly can because its cheaper to rent a van than it is a bus,” Syvrud said.

Upgrades in equipment can be few and far between.

Syvrud said he uses Case’s shrinking athletic budget to “cover the bare bones” of what’s required to make an athletic department function. If a team wants new uniforms, it has to find ways to come up with the money through independent fundraising.

“All of the (new) uniforms in the past three years have been fundraised by the kids,” he said.

This practice exists at most high schools, even at big-budget ones like Arrowhead.

“(The students) try to do a community-service based activity that can generate money,” said Jefson, who noted that some teams rake leaves for neighbors or hold carwashes.

While Syvrud feels going out and raising money has “intrinsic value” for the student-athletes, he ultimately wishes they could spend their time differently.

“It would be nice to have matching funds,” he said. “The kids could spend more time in the weight room or studying.”

Advertising, sponsorships

In some instances, local businesses advertise in high school stadiums and gyms as a way to help.

Olson said Hartford-Union — like many schools — sells advertising on the outfield walls of its baseball stadium (which is owned by the city) and asks businesses to buy other sponsorships to help the basketball and football teams. Case hangs advertising banners in its gym, according to Syvrud. Jefson mentioned scrolling boards and advertising panels that raise money at Arrowhead.

Fort Atkinson High School, where Pollex used to be athletic director, went so far as to sell the naming rights to its football stadium and basketball arena in 2012. It plays football at Jones Dairy Farm Stadium and basketball in PremierBank Gym.

“In order to maintain and upgrade our facilities, additional sources of revenue needed to be vetted,” Pollex said. “Thanks to the help of a very ambitious community businessman, we were able to develop a sponsorship program. That program generated a number of initial naming right opportunities for local businesses.”

Sometimes, community members take it upon themselves to upgrade their high schools’ facilities.

Last year, Franklin High School added a new concession stand and field turf to its football stadium, and is putting a new track around the field. According to athletic director Sara Unertl, the upgrades were “in response to a community group raising close to $1 million.” At that point, the School Board agreed to cover the remainder of the $2.4 million project — with the understanding the group would keep raising money.

Jefson said Arrowhead’s booster club raises $40,000 to $50,000 per year. Most recently, the school used some of that money for new weight room equipment.

“Arrowhead is blessed because of generous community members,” he said.

Boosters “kicked in a couple thousand dollars” for Hartford-Union’s new stadium scoreboard, according to Olson. Case has booster and alumni clubs too, but according to Syvrud, they will never generate “enough to build a new locker room.”

If the needs are especially great, districts will turn to community referendums to improve their facilities. Kenosha Unified School District passed a $16.7 million referendum in April to fund construction and improvement of outdoor fields at three of its high schools. The money will also go toward a new stadium for Bradford High School and renovations to Tremper High School’s stadium.

However, not all referendums succeed.

Whitnall School District saw a $6.9 million proposal, which included renovations to its swimming pool and gymnasium, fail convincingly in April.

“The School Board decided to go to referendum to address needs at the high school because it wanted to give our athletes a pool they could competitively dive and swim in (it’s currently too shallow), but also to renovate the pool and locker rooms so they would have been ADA accessible for students and the community,” Whitnall athletic director Scott Bruening said in an email.

Bruening made it clear that Whitnall cannot address the renovations with its annual maintenance budget and that conversations on how to fund the upgrades have already started.

Shopping around

For Milwaukee Public Schools, the 2009 federal stimulus package provided help.

The district’s crumbling, nearly century old South Stadium was torn down last year and replaced by a new stadium that just opened.

The $9 million project — new turf, bleachers, ticket booths, bathrooms, concessions — was financed with qualified school construction bonds issued by MPS through the city.

The stadium will be home to Bay View, Bradley Tech and South Division high schools for football and soccer.

A renovation of Custer Stadium on Milwaukee’s west side — again with new synthetic turf and new buildings — is expected to be finished in July.

Each time a district makes a splash with athletic upgrades, it puts more pressure on neighboring districts to respond. Unertl acknowledged that community group members who raised money for Franklin’s stadium improvements cited recent renovations at nearby Oak Creek and Greendale high schools as motivation.

“The group certainly was aware of the other schools’ upgrades and used that as a selling point to the board,” she said.

That kind of logic brings up a critical point: shiny new locker rooms, gyms and fields can convince parents to enroll their kids in a particular school — or even influence where young families buy a home.

“It cannot hurt,” Unertl said. “If you have top-notch facilities, I think that is a bonus when families are considering where to live.”

The more students a school district enrolls, the more money it gets from the state under the revenue cap. And the more money it gets, the more it might land on the “haves” side of the equation.

“Holistically, athletics are a really critical part,” Olson said. “Parents are almost shopping around. … For some families, it’s a really big deal.”

Wauwatosa superintendent Phil Ertl, who is overseeing a $4.5 million general facility upgrade that includes significant upgrades to Wauwatosa West’s football stadium, said he flat out asked his coaches and athletic directors whether they knew parents who had chosen Wauwatosa because of its athletic facilities, and they unanimously said they did. Still, he tries to keep his district out of the arms race he sees going on around him.

“I stay out of that fray. … That’s a race you’re never going to win,” Ertl said.

Source: New bleachers? Shiny lockers? School challenges intensify

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