Walking gingerly across a swath of ice, Jerry Schuetz kept his hands out for balance and slid toward a fence to unlock the gate to Milton’s football and track stadium.
Inside the gate, Schuetz, the Milton School District’s communications supervisor, pointed out areas of the stadium due for an upgrade. The most pressing need, a new track, lay covered by a thin layer of nearly melted snow.
The site could be part of the district’s next push for new facilities.
Milton’s athletic spaces came to the forefront of district consciousness at a recent school board meeting. A lengthy presentation outlined building deficiencies for a number of sports, most notably swimming and track and field.
The district already has a cost estimate for a football stadium renovation—$4.5 million.
That package would expand the six-lane track to eight lanes; add disabled-access bleachers, restrooms and concession stands; and update adjacent tennis courts and track amenities for events such as pole vault and discus, District Administrator Tim Schigur said.
The track is unusable and won’t be ready for the spring season. Milton is planning to resurface it for fall, a short-term fix that would cost $125,000.
A track team without a running track might not be Milton’s only sport without a minimal home. Next month, the district’s insurance carrier will evaluate the swimming pool and could mandate its closure.
The pool is losing more water than normal, though Milton has not confirmed whether it’s leaking. The pool’s deck is sinking, and that’s the issue that could force it to shut down, Schigur said.
Fixing the pool could cost between $500,000 and $900,000, he said.
The recent school board presentation was the first significant public discussion of facilities since the $69.9 million referendum failed in November. Focusing on athletics shifted the conversation from adding new classrooms to alleviating crowding.
But the change, coupled with the condition of some athletic facilities, left critics wondering how some areas fell into disrepair.
‘Shouldn’t be forgotten’
District officials maintain they’ve made athletics part of the facilities discussion for years. Each of the recent referendums—an $87 million proposal in 2016 and the $69.9 million idea last year—would have fixed the pool and built a new gym to increase interior athletic space.
But not everything included in the recent school board presentation, most notably a renovated stadium, would have been addressed in the referendums, Schigur said.
Sounding the alarm about cracked tennis courts, for example, would have only confused voters if the project wasn’t part of the referendum, he said.
Back at square one in an ongoing, years-long facilities debate, Milton decided it was time to revisit athletic needs left out of previous packages.
“The point was to remind the board that these topics shouldn’t be forgotten in those conversations,” Schigur said. “We need to find a balance because there’s needs in a lot of different areas. We just don’t want these spaces to not be included in the conversation.
“They aren’t worth less than the other spaces we’re talking about—the STEM wings, the art rooms, the hallways. We don’t want to focus on it, but to not talk about it is unfair and not good for programming.”
The school board presentation grew heated, with board member Brian Kvapil questioning why the district didn’t prioritize some of the most urgent athletic projects earlier.
Saying his words did not reflect the opinion of the full board, Kvapil later told The Gazette he was “annoyed” and “caught off guard” by the presentation’s content and timing, even though it was listed on the agenda.
“Obviously, some of these things have been going on for quite some time,” Kvapil said. “I was pretty upset as far as not having a track that track athletes could practice on. It’s one thing if you’re trying to get something grander and something nicer, but it’s totally different when you don’t have anything.”
He blamed the administration for failing to allocate enough money for athletic facilities. He said the building and grounds staff did what it could with the budget it had.
Building and grounds supervisor Stephen Schantz said the district had enough money only for maintenance and small fixes, not significant upgrades. Milton increased its annual facilities budget to $450,000 in the 2014-15 school year, up from $350,000.
That’s only enough to replace roofs or make other small fixes, he said.
“The problem is we have 660,000 square feet of building that’s almost 50 to 60 years old. With the amount of money I have to work with, I work more on a reactive basis than a preventative basis,” Schantz said. “I don’t have a choice. ‘I have to do this project this year,’ is almost the way it is.”
Schantz said he does as much preventive maintenance as he can, and some equipment is still working fine long past its life expectancy, he said.
He uses the district’s five-year capital maintenance plan to prioritize projects. Schantz tries to focus on those that address safety, security or disabled accessibility, he said.
Kvapil, who briefly clashed with Schantz during the recent board meeting, said the capital maintenance plan is a flawed tool because it doesn’t include criteria to prioritize projects, he said.
He said he “disagrees wholeheartedly” with the district’s prioritization methods.
Schigur said criticism that the district does not properly prioritize “couldn’t be further from the truth.” Milton has often gathered information from teachers and parents about what they need in a school building and used that to devise referendum proposals, he said.
The district has tried to compromise by trimming the 2016 referendum to reduce the price by $17 million. Milton made those cuts after criticism that it was seeking extravagance, Schigur said.
And the district has tried to make spending decisions through a long-term lens.
The district could have made temporary fixes to its track years ago, but the track doubles as a walkway and standing room viewing area for football games. That deteriorates the surface, Schigur said.
Milton would need to change those viewership habits to truly extend the track’s longevity. But it can’t do that because there’s no room for a different path to the bleachers, he said.
That forces the district to maintain rather than upgrade.
“There’s not a net gain of anything. It’s just as is, fix it. As is, fix it. As is, fix it,” Schigur said. “We need a different funding source, a one-time funding source, to make a much larger dent to make the vehicle move.”
Third time’s the charm?
What would a one-time funding source be? Schigur said that could mean a large donation, dipping into fund balance or, in all likelihood, another referendum attempt.
The school board has not delved into what a third referendum in as many years could look like. Its cost would surely be higher than the $4.5 million stadium price tag, and Schigur wasn’t certain if its terms would include all or part of those renovations, he said.
Milton isn’t trying to reframe this referendum debate around athletics, but sports facilities should at least be considered, Schigur said.
“From our lens, the conversation of that solution has to include multiple areas within the district. There’s nothing that’s solely academic or solely athletic,” he said. “It’s all intertwined, whether people want to separate them or not. We have to make those tough choices.”
Schigur said athletic areas can double as places for physical education and other non-sports events, such as graduation or concerts. It’s athletic space used for academic purposes.
Lance Fena, a district resident and regular face at board meetings, agrees with some of that argument. Teamwork and sportsmanship are good life skills, but classroom learning should take precedence, he said.
Kvapil had a similar view, touting the character-building aspect of sports. But he didn’t see how another facility would enhance those intangibles, he said.
Schigur believed some athletic facilities were important because of their civic pride benefits—especially the pool, which is the only one in the city.
“That helps connect people to schools,” he said. “If the facilities that help connect the community to the school fall into a place where they’re not usable, then the community and the school district have less connection.”
The district could permanently relieve some pressure on existing facilities if it purchases the Hawk Zone, a former bowling alley it has rented for the past year. The building is primarily used by Milton’s baseball and softball teams and other youth clubs.
Buying the Hawk Zone from its current owner would cost roughly $500,000, Schigur said. An action item could soon appear on a school board agenda.
As the board gears up for another round of referendum talks, the most important thing is to find common ground between all sides, Schigur said.
Safety and security upgrades could be the magic bullet that unites a divided district, especially in the wake of yet another school shooting.
Kvapil said the need to address unsafe athletic facilities was important, but improving secure entrances was a bigger priority.
“I’ve always said this, and I still believe it. The first order of business that the school district is responsible for is safety and security and then access,” Kvapil said. “To me, we really have to ensure our students are safe. Parents send their kids off to school every day and hope they come home safe. That’s a responsibility of the school district.”
Secure entrance upgrades are scheduled to be completed within the next few years. Milton can’t get them done sooner because its budget is too tight, Schigur said.
A facilities referendum would expedite their completion, he said.
No referendum would have universal support, but Schigur believes most people believe the district needs to do something about its facilities.
“The previous referendums seem to have gotten a life of discussing differences instead of coming together and talking about what brings us together,” he said. “If we start there and focus on that, then I believe the solution that comes out of those conversations would become a lot clearer and be better supported.”