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District to consider major athletics improvements

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Clark-Pleasant schools is considering spending millions of dollars to upgrade its high school athletics facilities, while also considering what to do about the enrollment growth predicted to continue in the coming years.

School board members are reviewing a proposal to spend $3.5 million to $4 million on multiple projects to renovate and expand athletic facilities at Whiteland Community High School.

Superintendent Patrick Spray wants to renovate the football stadium locker room, which doesn’t have enough space for all of the players. He also wants to expand the high school track from seven to nine lanes, install artificial turf at the high school football stadium and purchase a new scoreboard.

The restrooms and concession stands at the football stadium also need to be upgraded, and Spray wants to add a paved field that could be used for marching band practice.

High school athletics director Ken Sears asked the school district to consider making most of the upgrades two years ago, but at the time he was responsible for finding the money to pay for them. Spray decided the school district needed to make paying for the new facilities a priority after a growing number of parents, students and residents told him that the facilities are past their prime.

“As with many things, you’ll never accomplish a goal unless you’ve got a plan,” Spray said. “This will at least give us a plan or a road map.”

School officials won’t know the cost until contractors bid on the projects, and Spray would like to begin gathering bids this fall. If the school board approves the project next month, construction could begin in January and be complete before the start of next year’s football season next August.

School officials want to raise between $600,000 and $800,000 of the total amount and are considering paying for the rest with money the school district collects by renting its property for cell towers, small loans and property tax dollars Clark-Pleasant receives to upgrade and maintain its buildings.

Clark-Pleasant has been slow to spend its property tax dollars because of property tax caps, which limit the amount of money the school district can collect. Spray and business director Steve Sonntag said the school district can afford to use property tax dollars it receives for maintenance for the athletic projects because other expenses that money has covered in the past, such as technology costs, are now being paid for with other school district funds.

Earlier this year, Spray created a construction fund, in which Clark-Pleasant will set aside money such as the $19,200 the school district is collecting each year by renting cell tower space to Verizon. The point of that fund was to help Clark-Pleasant set aside extra cash to help with new construction projects, and eventually he wants the school district to be able to set aside up to $500,000 each year.

Spray wants the high school to be able to host marching band events and track conference meets and sectionals, which will give Whiteland students the chance to run and perform for an audience on their home turf. For that to happen, the track needs to be expanded to at least nine lanes and the field needs to be replaced with artificial turf. Nine lanes is now considered standard for track events, and more bands are used to marching on artificial turf, school officials said at the meeting.

Whiteland’s marching band also needs a new place to practice.

Right now, the band uses a low-lying field between the administration and high school buildings. The dirt field makes it difficult for the band to map out their shows because it’s often too soggy or too dry. A paved field would be easier for the band to work with, and the high school could use the field as a parking lot when needed, Spray said.

Growth expected to continue

About 15 coaches, parents and band boosters listened to Spray present the proposal to the school board Tuesday night. Most of the people at the meeting said they supported the project, though board member John Venter said school officials need to consider how else they could spend $4 million.

Venter wanted to know if the school district would be better off using the money to purchase buses or add classrooms to one of its schools.

Clark-Pleasant has been one of the fastest-growing school districts in the county. While the school district isn’t enrolling 400 to 500 new students each year as it did six or seven years ago, the growth is expected to continue over the next decade. A demographic study conducted last year indicated that by 2023, the school district could have more than 7,400 students, a 19 percent increase.

Most of that growth is expected at the intermediate, middle and high schools. The middle and high schools have space for more students, but the intermediate school is nearly out of room.

Upgrading the athletic facilities isn’t taking resources away from the needs of Clark-Pleasant’s schools, Spray said. School officials are working now to reassess how many students can attend school in each building, and Spray expects to form committees and host public meetings this school year focused on how to best handle student growth.

Based on the number of students expected over the next decade, Spray doesn’t expect the school district will have to consider any major building projects at a school for at least five years. The athletic updates need to happen sooner, he said.

“This is a pretty significant need, so I would put this toward the top of the priority list,” he said.

Venter also asked Spray and representatives from CSO Architects why it’s necessary for Clark-Pleasant to carry out all of the projects simultaneously. The answer is that most of the projects affect one another: the track expansion and artificial turf addition, for example, need to be done at the same time. Working on the project together also saves on the cost of project supervisors and manpower, the officials said.

Wish list created

Spray told the board he knows this is a lightning rod proposal, which some residents will love and others will be critical of. But he believes it’s necessary to ensure Whiteland’s students have the best and most affordable athletics facilities possible.

Clark-Pleasant officials have been discussing plans to upgrade facilities in and around Whiteland’s football stadium since 2012, but this is the first time there’s been serious talk about how to pay for the changes.

Two years ago, Sears created a wish list of upgrades he wanted to make at the high school, including upgrading the locker rooms, expanding the track and adding artificial turf to the football stadium. Clark-Pleasant used $141,000 from a 2011 advertising agreement with Johnson Memorial Hospital and Community Health Network to pay for about 700 new bleacher seats on the home side of the football stadium. He also received donations in exchange for name recognition to pay for pole barns used by Whiteland’s soccer, baseball and softball teams.

Over the summer, the school district used a $100,000 donation and tax dollars to replace bleachers on the visitor side of the stadium, which were becoming unsafe, Spray said.

But school officials also told Sears when he pitched the projects that he would have to find donors. By last spring, the search for donations had all but stopped, and he didn’t expect the upgrades would happen anytime soon.

“We’re kind of in a holding pattern,” Sears said in March. “Donations haven’t come in like we’ve hoped.”

But as more Whiteland parents, residents and students told him the track, football field, concession stands, locker rooms and other facilities were out of date, Spray decided the school district needed to find a way to afford new ones.

Other projects underway

Several other area school districts have either started or are planning construction projects as they’re either expecting more students over the next several years or need to ensure students have a safe place to learn.

At Center Grove Elementary and North Grove Elementary schools, the gymnasiums are being moved to the buildings’ exteriors and classrooms are being added. Greenwood schools just finished a project to add classrooms at Westwood Elementary and Southwest Elementary schools.

Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson’s school board voted earlier this year to add a wing onto Indian Creek Intermediate School for elementary students, as some sections of Indian Creek Elementary are more than 70 years old. Because 100 Indian Creek residents signed a petition challenging the project, that project will be decided by a petition race that began today.

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