Texas Schools Borrow to Build Stadiums for Friday Heroes

$60 million Texas High School Stadium sets new bar
Under Texas education-financing system, for some districts, using bonds to pay for bigger and better sports facilities provides a way to keep “local money at home,” according to Dee Hartt, the Tatum Independent School District’s superintendent. Photographer: Ian Halperin/Allen Independent School District

Carthage High School’s Bulldogs lost their Aug. 31 home opener to the Jacksonville Indians, 34-30, yet the Dawgs’ $750,000 scoreboard eased the sting.

With a display big enough to give 1.6 square feet of video screen to each of Carthage High’s 750 students, it’s the largest Jumbotron at a Texas secondary school, delivering instant replays and crowd shots during games.

In the land that inspired television’s “Friday Night Lights” series, high-school football takes on an outsize role. Players in some rural counties use fields with artificial turf and high-technology scoreboards. More than 100 stadiums have been built in Texas, financed by voter-approved bonds, in a five-year facilities arms race that preceded more than $5 billion in state cuts to education by Republicans in Austin.

“In poor districts, the stadium may be the only thing in the community they can be proud of,” said Joe Smith, a retired school superintendent in Lufkin.

As the Bulldogs lost, the Allen Eagles opened their $60 million stadium a half-hour drive north of Dallas with a 24-0 win over the defending conference champions. Almost 22,000 fans came to the state’s most costly high-school stadium to watch.

“If you don’t get the latest and greatest scoreboard or technology or whatever, in two or three years, you’re going to have the worst one,” said Smith, who runs TexasISD.com, a website devoted to educational finance and administration. While state aid subsidizes school operations, bonds can help build classrooms, buy buses and pay for football stadiums and gyms.

Not Shared

Under the state’s education-financing system, for some districts, using bonds to pay for bigger and better sports facilities provides a way to keep “local money at home,” according to Dee Hartt, the Tatum Independent School District’s superintendent. State law requires communities with tax bases above a certain level to share their property revenue with poorer districts.

In Tatum, Luminant’s Martin Lake coal-fired power plant is valued at almost $1 billion and accounts for about 70 percent of the tax base, making the 1,640-student district property-rich under the state system. So Tatum has to give up 55 percent of its real-estate levies. Bond money stays put, Hartt said.

The Tatum area isn’t affluent, with income levels and home values below the statewide average, U.S. Census Bureau data show. Almost 60 percent of the district’s students are considered economically disadvantaged under federal standards.

Borrowing $73 Million

District voters have authorized six bond issues, totaling $73 million, in the past decade to pay for buses, school buildings and athletic facilities.

“In the life of a school, academics is always the first thing,” Hartt said. With football, “that becomes the community. It’s the band, the cheerleaders, the drill team.”

Hartt’s East Texas district has spent almost $1,000 per student -- $16 million -- in the past four years on sports facilities such as a new Eagles football stadium. It has a three-story press box and a multisport indoor-training building with a 70-yard-long practice field.

Tatum’s high school has 464 students and a record of sending players on to major college teams and the National Football League. Jalen Overstreet, a 2012 graduate, is now a freshman quarterback for the University of Texas Longhorns. Former Eagles Denarius Moore and Travian Smith both went on to the NFL’s Oakland Raiders in California.

Carthage Bonds

The Carthage district, 16 miles (26 kilometers) southeast of Tatum near the Louisiana state line, has used a similar fiscal strategy, with voters passing three bond issues totaling $50.5 million in four years, Superintendent Glenn Hambrick said.

Carthage sits atop the Haynesville shale formation, which is rich in natural gas and gives the district a property-tax value of more than $1 million for each student. This year, Carthage, with a budget of $23 million, had to give $11 million in real-estate revenue to poorer districts, Hambrick said. That math makes bond issues easy to sell, he said.

Bulldog Stadium’s scoreboard, with a 1,200 square-foot (111 square-meter) video display, drew $35,000 in advertising from local businesses, with sponsors for instant replays and video of the marching band’s halftime shows.

“We had to turn people away -- there’s not enough room” for more advertisers, Hambrick said. He said he hopes the video display will help Carthage attract playoff games and more potential customers for local businesses.

No Complaints

“You don’t hear many people in our community complaining about it,” the superintendent said of the scoreboard’s cost.

Bond sales also have paid for a new elementary school with high-tech smartboards in every classroom, said Dustin Burns, president of the school’s 150-member booster club.

“If you don’t pass a bond and spend it for your kids here, it goes to the state,” Burns said of the tax dollars used to repay the debt. His club has raised more money for sports programs thanks to the nicer concession area at the 6,500-seat stadium and through scoreboard advertising sales.

Stadiums with 16,000 seats or more adorn 10 Texas high schools. More than 100 have video scoreboards and more than 500 have fields with artificial turf, according to Robert McSpadden of Katy, author of the “Texas Football Stadium Guide.” His TexasBob.com website holds a database of almost 1,200 gridirons.

“I guess I can understand spending money on something that gives pleasure on a Friday night 10 weeks a year -- but what does that mean to the overall values and the good of society?” said Thomas Palaima, a University of Texas at Austin classics professor and a critic of Texans’ college football fixation. He says the focus on the sport has trickled down to high schools and even middle schools in the state.

Robbing Peter

“The emphasis is so skewed that people don’t think about the fact that every bond issue is a choice -- you’re going to spend your money on this rather than something else,” he said.

Led by Governor Rick Perry, Republicans in Austin last year pared more than $5 billion from funding for public schools below the college level in Texas in the 24-month budget that began in September 2011, prompting job and program cuts. There’s no sign that lawmakers will undo the cuts, even with tax revenue topping state forecasts.

Residents served by some schools have balked at stadium-bond proposals. In 2010, voters in the coastal Galveston district rejected by a 2-to-1 margin a proposed $35 million stadium to replace one that was 60 years old.

What Recession

A year earlier, as the nation limped out of the longest recession since the Great Depression, Allen voters passed a $119 million bond issue to pay for the school’s new stadium as well as a performing arts center and a transportation facility.

The stadium to be replaced was “horrible,” with portable toilets and rented bleacher seats, said Tim Carroll, a district spokesman. He deflected reports in national news media questioning the priorities of spending so much on a high-definition video scoreboard, free wireless Internet service in the stands and facilities for the golf and wrestling teams.

“Clearly, people outside of Allen are resentful,” Carroll said. One of Texas’s most affluent districts had focused on adding schools ahead of sports facilities as enrollment grew to more than 19,000 from about 6,000 in 1999, including 5,300 in the ninth through 12th grades. Allen High School’s 800-member marching band is the nation’s biggest, Carroll said.

The scoreboard has attracted $230,000 in advertising, money that goes into the district’s general fund, Allen Superintendent Ken Helvey said. On Aug. 31, fans filled all 18,000 seats and 4,000 more stood to watch the game against the Southlake Carroll Dragons. The team merchandise store sold out, Carroll said, evidence of the community’s support for football.

As for critics, Helvey said, “We really don’t consider outsiders. They’re not our voters.”

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