The Wichita school district isn’t likely to build a new varsity football stadium anytime soon.
District leaders say dwindling bond funds, rising construction costs and the loss of about $47 million in federal and state matching dollars mean two new district stadiums – as proposed in the original 2008 bond issue plan – may have to wait.
That includes one planned at the new Southeast High School, which is scheduled to open next year. The stadium is the latest casualty of a bond issue that has been scaled back notably from its initial wish list.
“I know folks would like to have both of those stadiums,” said Superintendent John Allison. “We’ve just got to balance what’s practical and what’s fiscally responsible.”
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A $60 million price tag for the new Southeast High School at 127th Street East and Pawnee does not include a varsity football stadium or other outdoor athletic amenities, Allison said. Wichita school board members on Monday are expected to accept a guaranteed maximum price from Donlinger Construction of $59,992,036 for the project.
The new school will have basic physical education and athletic facilities when it opens, Allison said, including a main gymnasium with walking track, a practice gym and swimming pool.
A turf field, track, tennis courts, baseball diamonds and other outdoor amenities will be designed by district staff and bid separately to save on costs, he said.
So far, at least, it’s doubtful the district will build a stadium similar to those at Heights, South and Northwest High, with enough seating, bathrooms and parking to host varsity football games. Depending how a stadium is designed, it could add up to $5 million to the project.
“The question about a stadium – what that’s going to look like – is still a decision to be made,” Allison said. “I think that’s a tough question on need vs. want.”
‘A difficult situation’
The bond issue approved by Wichita voters in 2008 sought to fix many long-standing deficiencies with athletic facilities and put the district on par with suburban school districts.
Included in the $370 million plan were two district football stadiums – one in the northeast quadrant and one in the southeast – that would be built alongside two new Class 5A comprehensive high schools.
About two years into the bond plan, district leaders put projects on hold to re-evaluate priorities and spending. They were facing reductions to state capital outlay money targeted for Wichita and the loss of millions in Federal Emergency Management Agency money the district had counted on to offset the cost of building storm shelters.
Since then the district has moved forward on dozens of projects, including several new schools, storm shelters and overhauls to athletic and fine arts facilities.
But the two additional comprehensive high schools never happened.
A new high school in Bel Aire opened as the new home of Northeast Magnet High School as part of a boundary plan approved in 2012. Because the magnet school does not have athletic programs – students compete at their base high schools – outdoor athletic facilities were never built at that school.
In 2013, the board voted to build a new Southeast High at 127th Street East and Pawnee. Because of the site’s vast acreage, many assumed a varsity football stadium would be included in that project. But as cost estimates increased, the likelihood of a stadium equipped to host Friday night games diminished.
“We’re not talking about sports complex portions yet, at this point,” said board member Lynn Rogers.
“The way I understand it, everything will be there – the infrastructure – so we can add some of that stuff over time,” he said. “It’s a difficult situation, but … the priority has been on the academic (portions) and getting that where we need to go.”
Weston Schartz, a longtime high school football coach currently at West High, was surprised to learn that a new stadium may not happen at Southeast. He said he thought the school would include all the modern trappings for athletics as well as academics.
“That’s disappointing,” said Schartz, a 1979 graduate of Southeast High who played on three state-champion football teams.
“We would love to have one, but I know we’re never going to have one here,” Schartz said of West. “But I’ll be very disappointed if Southeast doesn’t get theirs because I wanted it for those guys.”
Only three of Wichita’s seven public high schools – Heights, Northwest and South – have football stadiums. East, North, Southeast and West play home games away from campus.
Other large districts in Kansas – including Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley, Olathe and Topeka – also share football stadiums.
Schartz, who coached at Northwest for almost a decade before returning to West in 2011, said home-field advantage is not a myth.
“When I was first at West High School, we didn’t have a stadium and we didn’t think anything of it,” he said. “When you don’t have it, you don’t miss it. So we just went every place and played at everybody else’s stadiums.”
When he moved to Northwest in 2002, he quickly discovered how nice it is to play home games at your own school.
“You don’t have to get on a bus. Your fans have a place they can call their own,” he said. “You’re in your own locker rooms. The kids can come a little later, they can get dinner before the game, they don’t have to get on a bus and travel.
“I didn’t realize the advantages of having your own stadium until I had one.”
Mark Lamb, athletic director at Southeast High, said he thinks a fourth district stadium is needed to alleviate scheduling challenges districtwide, including having to play Thursday night games. Beyond that, he said, students and families at Southeast have looked forward to finally playing games on a home field.
“I’m sure there’d be some disappointment” if a stadium doesn’t happen, he said. “No question about that.”
Overall budget concerns
Barbara Fuller, the board member whose district includes the current Southeast High, said a new stadium would be a coup for Southeast and would help with logistics and scheduling.
But rising costs and diminishing funds – and a subsequent recalibration of priorities – meant a lot of things on the original bond plan have been scaled back or postponed.
“Of course we’re disappointed,” Fuller said. “But I don’t know how we’d change it.”
Joy Eakins, whose district includes the new Southeast, wouldn’t comment about prospects for a varsity stadium, saying she is seeking more information from district administrators.
In November 2012, the bond plan was about $4.1 million under budget. But district leaders and bond managers were already beginning to worry about so-called “bond-issue creep,” as construction costs rose and bids started coming in higher than originally planned.
They had to use more bond money than planned to build a storm shelter at every school – a key promise of the bond plan – after FEMA funding fell about $17 million short. And they had to make up for a loss of about $30 million in capital equalization funding from the state.
“That’s a huge chunk,” said Allison, the superintendent. “If you’re doing a $100,000 addition to your house and you lose 30 percent of it, it’s going to look different. You can’t be angry that it suddenly decreased in square footage.”
When board members consider the updated price for Southeast High on Monday and discuss future plans for the school, they will do it amid concerns about overall education funding as well. Gov. Sam Brownback said he wants lawmakers to rewrite the state funding formula; in the meantime, state education officials say his proposed budget would cut about $127 million from schools.
“That may totally change what we can do or possibly do,” Rogers said.
“I think people need to realize that we don’t make decisions in a vacuum. … The recession hit and state funding dropped and FEMA decreased and all those things,” he said. “I don’t want people to think, ‘I voted for this, (so) that should be absolutely what we get,’ when we were thrown a bunch of changes.”
Schartz, the coach, added that the bond issue has vastly improved gyms, weight rooms, locker rooms, swimming pools and more in city high schools. He said he got tears in his eyes when he first saw the new bond facilities at West, which were sorely needed.
If a new district stadium doesn’t happen, he said, he’ll try to keep that in perspective.
“It’s like if you get a bike on Christmas morning, but your brother got a 10-speed,” Schartz said. “You don’t want to complain about not getting a 10-speed because you just got a new bike.”