Shared Facility Funding: Field Of Broken Promises
In September 2006, an artificial turf field was unveiled to a packed house under the Friday night lights at Wisconsin’s Brookfield Central High School (BCHS). In addition to a state-of-the-art field for football, soccer, track and the band, the synthetic turf brought the field utilization from 9% to 87%, with the largest benefactor being the school’s physical education program.But if you broach the subject of the field in 2009, the widespread smiles seen at the unveiling have turned to sour faces by the community, school board, coaches and faculty. How did a beautiful 120 yards of green carpet come to be viewed instead as a political quagmire that left egg on the face of many?
It wasn’t the field, it was the funding, or what was supposed to be an equal public and private co-share.
With other area high schools’ athletic facilities (many 100% privately funded) leaving BCHS in the dust, the school’s athletic director appointed a parental booster group to lead the charge of fundraising for a synthetic field. After a highly energized and motivated parental task force quickly raised $200,000 for the new field, the school board agreed to front the $827,000 cost of the project, with the understanding that the private group’s remaining 50% (around $213,000) would be paid in full by private sources by June 2008. Upon the school board’s approval in the spring of 2006, the construction work and final installation of the field was completed in sprint fashion, with kickoff just 6 months after approval.
Three years later, the district is still short nearly $150,000 of what was promised by the private group, known as BC2. And the current rate of repayment, the field will still be mortgaged by the time a replacement rug is needed. In this suburban town of 40,000 outside of Milwaukee, Wis., it’s hard to find anyone who wants to touch the issue with a 10-foot pole, and there’s plenty of finger pointing to go around.
If anyone ever doubted that Murphy’s Law applies to funding athletic projects, here’s some evidence that whatever could have gone wrong, did:
• The project’s biggest catalyst and cheerleader, the A.D., resigned from his post to return to the classroom before the funding issue was resolved.
• The construction was so rapid that the fundraising efforts didn’t keep pace.
• The passionate and core group of parents ran out of steam as the field was completed, as many of those founding members’ kids graduated from the high school.
• The other high school in town had organized its own ongoing fundraising organization 10 years earlier and had demonstrated that the dollars could be efficiently raised before construction commenced, bringing debates of preferential treatment for one school and commentary on poor decision making on many fronts.
• It was a public relations nightmare. The subject was a highly politicized lightning rod of sorts and frequently cited in the months leading up to a $62 million vote to renovate the two high schools, which taxpayers ultimately passed last year.
Who’s Problem is it to Fix?
Discussions with the BCHS athletic director didn’t shed much light on the issue. Because of the bad press in the local community, the A.D. who inherited the problem when he joined the district in 2007 had little to say on what had happened before he arrived, nor was he willing to comment on the group’s direction. While he refrained from postulating about potential solutions, it is known that he urged varsity coaches last year — in all sports, regardless of whether they used the fields — to get personally involved in fundraising for the project and/or appoint parental representatives to the task force. Unpopular with coaches, the endeavor has brought little measurable results to date.
Delving into a subject best described as a political football that no one wanted to touch from a distance any closer than field-goal range, Coach & Athletic Director sat with the leader of the parental group, Bill Gromacki, who has remained dedicated to the project even 2 years after his last child left the school.
“If we don’t pay the money back, any new committee and effort will be penalized,” he says, still sharing his longer-term vision for new baseball and tennis facilities. “If we don’t get this taken care of, what school board member is going to go to bat for future athletic facilities after what happened?”
He makes no excuses for the parental group’s inability to meet its commitment. While he says that the school board was too generous when it OK’d the project and should have required the full funds up front (even if it took another year or two), he adds that there had been no reason to expect the problems. The football program had become perennial winners with excellent support, a committee of well-respected “doers” had been hand-picked by the athletic director and the group had earned the school board’s trust with their focus and resources (including a sizeable dollar-for-dollar match by a wealthy parent).
Promises and execution obviously didn’t align, and there’s now plenty of hand-wringing over what should’ve happened. Now, the issue is how to finance a field that’s already in with a clock running on the debt. Gromacki sees two solutions.
• First is reorganizing and restructuring with a longer-term task force that would target the parents of middle school students — those whose children will see a sustained benefit from their hard work.
• Second is an effort to solicit donations from the parents of former students who still are living in the district, and who might be persuaded to contribute based on the head start their children had as a result of the fine education they received. But this aproach takes direct help from the administration.
“You might get a million mailings when your child is in high school,” he says, “but the day that your last kid graduates as a senior, you never hear from the school again.”
Other ideas have been on the table, including approaching an alum playing in the NFL to write a check to pay the debt. Naming rights have also been bandied about, but thought not to be practical because of the excessive bureaucracy involved, and the fact that the approvals would need to be sought from the city, not to mention the “strings attached” issues that can come from such arrangements. Plus, as a suburb, the city has few corporate headquarters that would be likely candidates to approach for naming rights.
Gromacki does believe that the school itself could be more involved in helping solve the matter, particularly since physical education is the biggest beneficiary.
“Football events use the field only 20 nights per year, but the phys ed classes use it every day,” he says. But in an era where everyone is jockeying for funding, it’s not surprising that a school may want the public’s attention on less politicized matters, not to mention other projects requiring private donations.
While the recession hasn’t helped, Gromacki believes that the money is still out there, even in a two-school town that limits interest to one half of the community’s borders.
Another challenge is the fragmentation of the fundraising efforts today. Gromacki says that athletes are paying user fees in some sports, and the traditional all-sports booster club that was so successful in years past has seen its coffers dwindle by the fact that each sport now has its own fundraising efforts.
“There are fiefdoms at play,” he says. “If you’re a parent, there’s a tendency to contribute what you can directly to the coach’s fundraising project that will most benefit your own child. When you’re being pulled in many directions for donations, this leaves less for other causes.”
Even when the private support for athletics exists, some districts are wary of proceeding due to the fact that it can interfere with other school district fundraising efforts.
Solved by Staffing?
In an ugly situation in which few solutions short of “having the horses” to lead the charge have been identified, Gromacki is convinced that the future of athletic funding will require a wholesale staffing change at the school level.
“Look at the parochial schools,” he says, citing a private academy across town that is building a new high school and state-of-the-art athletic facilities, courts and fields. “They do it all by donation. They’re tapping into their alumni base, and other private schools in this area are constantly upgrading their facilities.
“In the longer run, schools would be wise to align themselves with a fundraising position or professional organization, just like the Catholic schools. With the way things are going, the only way to get the dollars for athletic facilities is through private donations.”
He is quick to state that the responsibility can’t just be added to the A.D. “Just a few years ago, we had one A.D. trying to do the job at two high schools. Here, our A.D. isn’t being asked to teach anymore, but he’s also an associate principal and has additional responsibilities.”
The district has a public relations director, says Gromacki, so why not have someone who can bring revenue in the door to help. Perhaps it’s an idea that A.D.s should lobby for, as questions about return on investment continue to be heard in board meetings.