Greenfield — The Whitnall School Board believes it's ready to tackle the problem of flooded athletic fields at Whitnall High School.
The board this week approved a $6.5 million financing plan for a long-awaited project, though officials also were forced to consider a fall-back plan if the district's finances are completely upended by the state's budget-repair bill.
Three years ago, parents started digging to find out why the football, soccer and baseball fields flooded so often. Even the Whitnall gym gets water occasionally - up to 2 inches in the locker rooms - and staff has to be on duty to vacuum up water to protect the gym floor.
It turns out that the fields need to be elevated. That essentially is what the $6.5 million project is all about.
Strip, regrade and rebuild
The football and soccer fields will be torn up and the whole area north of the school will be regraded. Then the football stadium will be rebuilt where it is now, but with new bleachers and other amenities, including restrooms.
The surrounding track, which has not been used for a meet since 2000 because of its poor condition, will get an eight-lane replacement .
The rebuilt stadium will be used by both the football and soccer teams. The baseball field will be freshened up and filled to level it out.
The work also will include the parking lot, where up to 120 parking stalls will be added to the east side of the school to serve the athletic fields and provide parking for special events.
Construction may start this year and take 18 months to complete in phases, said Matt Karshna, buildings and grounds supervisor and project manager. Work on the football stadium will not start until after football season this fall.
A worthy investment
"We're very excited because it is something of value to kids and a very positive development for the schools in the community," School Board President Bill Osterndorf said after the meeting. "It's a very major decision - $6.5 million is a watermark in the life of a school district. … As a School Board we are very sensitive to the need to take care of our facilities."
Karl Stave, chairman of the subcommittee working on the plan, was pleased at the School Board action to do something about the fields. He said, "There is a definite need."
"We're happy after going through this process that the board also sees the need and decided to go ahead," Stave said.
The flooding problem has been getting worse as development has gone on around the school and more impervious surface has been created at the school itself, he said, resulting in more stormwater runoff going onto the fields.
Financing it, and what if
To find the financing option that would hit the property tax levy the least, officials sorted through dozens of options, board member Bernard Shaw said.
The project would add an estimated 2 percent to the school levy next year, but then the levy would level off and even go down in the fifth year, officials estimate. But next year's total property tax levy might go up 6.52 percent, including both the athletic facilities project and regular cost increases, officials said.
Although the vote to obtain a loan was unanimous, the board wanted to have a fall-back position in case the state budget battles end in aid cuts even deeper than local officials expect and the district finds itself scrambling for dollars.
"There's havoc and chaos in Madison and no one knows what's going to happen," said board member Suzette Larson. "My fear is a year from now we're going to be making cuts because of things in Madison."
She does not want to be in the position of hearing from parents who object to educational program cuts while the school is building a stadium, Larson said.
If the state does pull the rug out, so to speak, the district can call the notes earlier and pay them off with fund balance, said Superintendent of Schools Lowell Holtz.
The district has the money to fund the project, but officials do not want to use it because the district would lose state aid if it did, Holtz said. But, he predicted, with the state depriving schools of aid, the provisions that punish districts for using fund balance will probably go by the wayside.
In any case, a second School Board vote will be needed to actually borrow the money. Borrowing for the project could happen in 30 to 60 days, officials estimate.
Why no voter option?
Not everyone likes the financing plan, at least without the show of strong public support.
Former Greenfield mayor Tim Seider, the only citizen to speak before the School Board voted on the project, said a 6.52 percent levy increase is too much. He called for the board to take the issue to a referendum to see what the public thinks.
Because a referendum is not required under state law, the board declined. However, the board left the door open for citizens to circulate a petition to get a referendum on the ballot.
But that couldn't happen in time for the upcoming spring election. The filing deadline for getting a referendum onto the April ballot was Feb. 22, Greenfield City Clerk Jennifer Goergen said Tuesday. The next regular local election is Feb. 21, 2012, at the earliest, she said.
The reason that now seems to be time to address the issue is that school interiors have been upgraded in a massive 10-year project and now the district is turning to exterior needs, Stave said.
"Now the highest priority is the high school," he said.
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