Majority of speakers against turf on WW FB field

By: 
Staff Writer Kate Wehlann

Despite rumors going around the Senator community saying the West Washington school board had already decided to turf the school’s football field, board members assured those gathered for a public discussion at Monday evening’s monthly board meeting that this was not the case.

“This isn’t something we’ve been attempting to do under the table,” said Superintendent Keith Nance. “There have been no decisions made. This is not a done deal, as some people have said. We’re doing our very best to be completely transparent and no decision has been made. This all stems from a discussion in a planning session.”

Technology Director Kelly Williams said when she spoke later in the meeting the idea of turf — and, in fact, a football stadium — had been brought up at a hopes-and-dreams meeting five years ago.

“Mr. [Gerald] Jackson (the district’s last superintendent) told us to dream big and have a vision for the school,” she said. “That was the first time turf was brought up. In the past five years, we’ve made so much of the things brought up in that meeting come true.”

She listed technology upgrades, a “YMCA atmosphere,” meaning the school would be a gathering place for events held during the times school wasn’t in session, career and technical education opportunities and projects for the arts.

“We wanted to be small, but we want to grow,” she said. “We want to be no more than 950 kids, but we have to, financially, grow.”

Nance said each year, projects and ideas are added to the list discussed at the annual planning session.

“We reprioritize and have things go from first priority to third, depending on what we need,” he said.

Nance said it wasn’t until January of this year that talk about turf became more serious. The board asked him to compile the information he found on the process and cost of installing turf and he presented it at the meeting on Monday. The cost of turfing a football field, he said, has dropped significantly in the past decade and he said replacement will only cost half of what the installation cost was, though that could range between $725,000 and $850,000. The warranty would last for 10 years and the average replacement time is between 12 and 15 years. He said, while turf wouldn’t be no-maintenance, it would be lower maintenance than what a typical grass field requires. The turf would require a once-a-year treatment to de-bacterialize the field, along with general cleaning of the field, which Nance likened to vacuuming a carpet in a home.

Comparatively, he said, at a conservative estimate, the current field costs about $15,000 in supplies and maintenance, not including the cost of mowing during the six months the field needs that.

The school would pay for the turf by adding more debt to the debt service fund as debt was paid out of that fund, meaning the project would be done without raising taxes on the community.

An objection to turf Nance said he heard was if the school has money for turf, it has money for classroom supplies, school lunches and helping families afford book fees.

“The funds could be spent on a variety of things, but it wouldn’t be financially prudent to use debt for consumable items,” he said. “It would be like getting a loan to go to the grocery store. Next week, you’ll still need groceries and you’ll have a loan to pay back. It could be, hypothetically, spent on the cost of lunches, covering that for a year, but next year, the cost would still be there and I’d have to go back to our people and say, ‘You got one year of free lunches, but next year, you have to pay.’ It would be pretty problematic.”

He said other superintendents have advised him to spend debt on things that are tangible and long-lasting, things that may generate revenue and is impactful to the school. He said the field would see a lot of utilization and may even serve as a marketing tool to potential students.

“This is something I struggled with presenting,” he said. “Why did I choose to say in that planning meeting, ‘Here we are, talking about turf again.’ I wanted to share that. For me, my number one job is to make sure the building continues to operate financially and fiscally sound. The best way for me to explain this is I look out every day and think about how many kids we have at our school. We were at a point where we had so few kids at our school that we were talking about getting rid of teachers, going down to fewer teachers per grade, getting rid of programs and that’s scary stuff. That was in 2015. In 2020, we had the biggest salary increase we’ve had in a long time and that’s due to enrollment. There’s a sweet spot for enrollment at our school, between 850 and 950 kids, that allows us to operate well and take care of teachers, who are the most impactful people on our students. You can pat teachers on the back all day long, but morale really comes from showing them how much you appreciate them. When you sit down to negotiate, you don’t say, ‘We have no money.’ You say, ‘We’re going to work on coming to an agreement and finding a way to take care of you.’ The thing I’m most proud of since I’ve been here is we settled a two-year contract with a very generous pay increase. Best thing I’ve done.”

On a personal level, Nance said he was bringing the idea up because he said it was something his close friend, the late Phillip Bowsman, wanted for the school.

“I’m torn to share this,” he said. “I asked for permission to share it and I was granted permission to share it. This is about a friend who had a vision and that friend is no longer here —”

“You can not do that,” Carri Cambron, sitting in the audience at the meeting interrupted. “You can not play on the emotional pull on the community. That’s not fair.”

“I’m not playing on sympathy,” Nance said. “I’m just saying I could not in good conscience, not at least present it to the board. This isn’t about swaying anyone’s opinion. I could easily duck under cover and not take the heat that I’ve taken, but I’m not going to do that. That would be cowardly and it would not be being the friend I consider myself to be. This isn’t about swaying anyone. This is about why would I even bring it up. Nothing has been decided. The reason I would even bother to stick my neck out is because I feel I have to. If the end result is that we don’t have it, then I feel I have done what was appropriate to do and I will have zero hard feelings if it comes to that.”
The school sent out a survey on social media regarding turf on the field and received fewer than 200 responses from school staff community members. The results were fairly polarizing, with 87 in favor, 80 opposed and 15 indifferent.

“A large portion of our enrollment comes from outside the district,” said Board Secretary Sal Sama, apart from the prepared statement from the board. “A large portion. If you noticed, coming in here, the hallways were very clean, sparkling, the place looks good. We’ve always got to do, through academics, the facility and everything else, we’ve got to fight above our weight class. We’re a single-A school in athletics. Whatever it is, we have to do it really well. No one has pushed this on the board. Mr. Nance hasn’t pushed it. No other board member has pushed it, and I think last week, I got a comment that this was already done, and this is not the situation at all.”

Matt Deaton was the first member of the public to speak. He was previously a member of the West Washington school board.

“There can be a lot of justification to do the project and those things will vary greatly,” he said. “… In my opinion, this is not a cost-savings. We just got some statistics on what this will cost. It will cost $800,000 to build it in 2020, it will cost $400,000 to replace it in 2032 or so, and another $400,000 to replace it in 2044. If you add $5,000 a year for maintenance each year, over those 24 years, it comes to a cost of $1.72 million for the turf surface. If you assume $15,000 a year to maintain the current surface, that’s $360,000 over that 24-year period. If you add $50,000 in for recrowning, you come up to $410,000. $1.72 million is greater than $410,000.”

He said, when it comes to safety, the best people can do is speculate whether the turf surface is safer than the dirt and grass field players currently play on.

Deaton also addressed the concern that if the school doesn’t use the “room” in the debt service fund created by old debt being paid off, another entity might take it.

“As you can see, there’s a lot of pride in this room and in this school corporation,” he said. “In fact, I think that’s the single thing that separates West Washington from all the other schools that want to be like us. If there was a need in this school system, this community will support whatever that real need is. In my opinion, the turf surface is not a need. It’s a want and I would recommend we not pursue the turf field at this time.”

David Hoar, a past member of the county council, said he also didn’t approve of the turf.

“Your number one obligation as a school board is education of the students,” he said. “Whenever you do a capital project like this, the questions you need to ask is, ‘Will this expand the education opportunities for our students? Are we able to care for the capital project now and in the operational budget in the future? Will this increase the safety and security and welfare of our student population?’ … I’m a little surprised this project has surfaced, to tell you the truth.”

He said the current school building is aging at more than 60 years old.

“It has maintenance issues and it has things we can’t foresee,” he said.

Beth Nicholson agreed with Hoar, saying education and the current facility should be the board’s priority.

Prior board member Robert Hoar agreed with David Hoar. He said the building was designed to last 70 years and would soon be needing repairs, though he credited the school’s maintenance teams with taking good care of the building.

He said the tax burden falls heavily on agriculture properties in the district.

“It’s a big burden on people who own bare land,” he said. “Houses are a different thing. The state has allowed agriculture land to not be taxed at the same rate as the value of a residence. We’re not going to have too many subdivisions coming into this district. You talked about an increase in enrollment and how you’ve had to reach out to other communities to gather those students. What happens when those students decrease, and that side of your revenue decreases drastically? You’re stuck with debt and maintenance costs … I’m not saying it wouldn’t be nice to have a field like that, but higher education and developing a program to extend this school in education by reaching out to colleges and other higher-degree levels of education and to promote those would be more beneficial to our student population than a turf field.”

Current Corporation Treasurer Vickie Nice said borrowing more money would extend the tax payment and reduce the school’s chance to lower taxes. She said the corporation is still paying off the gym additions and will be for the next 10 years. She compared taking out another loan to a person maxing out their credit cards.

“I worry about needing money for an emergency and not having any money to pay for that,” she said. “Field turf is a huge expense for a 1-A school … We have a very limited number of households in our school district, and even fewer households that actually own property and pay taxes. It is very easy for people to say they approve of this project when they don’t have to pay for it. If we absolutely believe we must continue to borrow money to protect our tax base, then I think we should borrow money that will pay for something that will impact all students.”

Andrew Banks is a West Washington football coach. He was among the few at the meeting who supported a turf field.

“We were in financial peril at this school about a decade ago,” he said. “Things were really bad. Right now, we have a board that has put together a financial metric that has put us in a much better place. Now, we’re talking about what to do when we’ve got ourselves in a more stable financial situation. I’m probably not going to change anybody’s mind tonight, just like nobody’s going to change mine, but I think it’s important that this money needs to be utilized, and if you don’t like field turf, then let your board member know what you do want to see, and understand there are certain things this money can be used for.”

Travis Williams thanked the board for the work they did to put the school in a position where an option like a turf field could be discussed at all.

“I hope we don’t pass up the opportunity to invest the available funds in our school,” he said. “I hope we do the right thing for our school and our community.”

Cambron spoke again to give her opinion on turf. She passed out a copy of a Facebook post she made regarding the issue the Friday before the meeting.

“The superintendent clearly stated in his presentation that we get $40,000 distributed to our athletic fund,” she said. “He then clearly states, ‘We do not have athletic funding,’ yet we’re having a discussion to get $900,000 turf. … It’s a luxury item. I would love to drive a brand-new Escalade ESV. That’s a luxury item. It is not a need … There are so many things … I see. I see teachers who have to publicly ask for hand sanitizer because they’re out in their classrooms. Why can’t that money be distributed to the teachers? I see kids come to school in the pouring rain and cold without coats on. Provide for them. Provide school lunches for every single child, and if, next year, I have to pay $10 for my 14-year-old every day because he eats here, I’ll do it. If you can provide one year of that, if you can provide one year of book fees — I pay more than $300 for three kids’ books in this school. I can’t imagine a family of five and what they pay. Take care of what we have here. Grow our education. Most kids, when they play their last game their senior year, it’s their last game. They will never step on a court or a field again. They are done. Will it look pretty? Absolutely. It will look gorgeous, but do you know what else will look gorgeous? The field we have that has a Senator painted on it every Friday. Everyone comes to those games whether it has turf or not.”

Kelly Williams said she sees the needs in the school every day, but that the money in question can’t be used on classroom supplies or school lunches.

“I love our beautiful field,” she said. “I think it’s gorgeous and many of our board members can attest that I have spoken out against turf in the past … I can’t stand here today and say I want it or not, but I can say that we played in semi-state on turf. It is a thing. Ten years ago, it wasn’t really a thing, but people are playing on turf now. That is where it’s going. We’ve always been forward thinking. We have always tried to be out there in front of everybody else. This is one other thing that gives our students an advantage. I mean, my kid wants turf because it’s cool and, is that a good reason to spend $500,000 or a million dollars? No, but it shows you when he gets to compete at national level in academics or state level, and his facilities are the best they can be, and he can go to college and say, ‘I came from this school in the middle of a cornfield,’ that has the CTE we have, and the manufacturing we have, that has all of these things, the beautiful gyms we have, which are better than anywhere I know — I’m not saying we do get the turf or we don’t get the turf. As Carri alluded to, we can all drive nice cars or do what we can afford, and we can afford this and it’s nice.”

Several people started speaking quietly, disagreeing that the school could afford it.

“We can afford it now, but maybe not next year,” said one.

“Look at this,” said Williams, “My heart goes out to every child in this building. I see, day in, day out, what our needs are, but the truth is, we can not spend that money on that. It just can not happen. If we don’t spend the money, fine, we don’t spend the money. I feel like it could be a waste of an investment we could put into our facilities, but education is still going on. It’s still happening. It’s not a field versus education. We’re talking about not spending the money or investing the money in our school.”

David Hoover said he has been a long-time football fan. He said he homeschooled his son, but eventually let him enroll at West Washington so he could play football. Earlier last year, he brought a check to Phillip Bowsman and told him he wanted to create a foundation for businesses to contribute to that would help pay for athletic facility upgrades, rather than spending tax dollars. He said Bowsman’s eyes lit up when he talked about turf and covers over the home stands.

“I trust you with my vote and I trust you in this decision,” he said. “I will let you know, as a business person and someone who is interested in this school system, I think the time is now for us to do the turf and I would encourage you to vote in that direction.”

Sherri Hoar is an elementary teacher at the school. She suggested the money could go toward projects on the elementary side of the building.

“I know the money can’t go toward teacher salaries or to bring in new teachers in to help with other things I think we might benefit from,” she said. “… When I see all of these nice things happening at the high school level, and all these new classrooms that are awesome, I see improvements at the football field, new gyms going up, a new wrestling gym, I see all these things going for high school kids. What’s happening for the elementary? Yeah, we’ve got blue mulch. OK. What about, for years, I had to ask for hand dryers that actually worked. We carted paper towels down every day for years to dry hands. I feel like we need that. I feel like we need paint in the elementary. I feel like some rooms need new paint, that haven’t been painted in probably 30 years or more. Restrooms, there are things that need to be fixed. Teachers have told me there are toilets that don’t flush. There aren’t very many stalls anyway, especially in girls’ restrooms. There are ceiling tiles that need to be replaced or roof repairs to prevent leaks … There are little improvements we could do at our elementary end, too. Technology. Why can’t more money go into that? We’re going to do K-12 standards in technology. Kindergarten will need to learn how to use Chromebooks and I don’t think they have any. I think they still have iPads. There’s a need there. There are a lot of things I see that money could go toward to improve our elementary building. Replacing light bulbs in monitors in our SMART boards. If that’s what we’re using to teach with, those things need to be fixed. That helps the morale in the elementary and kids will know, too, that you care about that end of the building.”

Todd Armstrong said as much as he loves football and wants to support it in any way he could, as a parent and taxpayer, he can’t support turf.

“We’re talking about $1,000 per kid in the entire school corporation to do turf,” he said. “That just seems like an exorbitant amount of money to spend on this project. As a parent, I teach my kids that we borrow money for things we need. For things we want, we have to save and do that yourself. Someone mentioned semi-state was played on turf. That was a private school, funded by private donations. If we want to come up with corporate donations, I’m 100% behind it. I’ll donate to it, but to ask the taxpayers to do it, that’s too much for the community we have.”

The next West Washington School Corporation regular board meeting will be Monday, March 30, at 7 p.m. in the high school professional development room (175).

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