November 5, 2013

Now, just let that sink in. A state that's cut spending on public education by 25% wants to build a $69 million high school sports stadium. This is wrong on so many levels:

Those famous Friday Night Lights do not come cheap. On Tuesday, voters in the Houston suburb of Katy will decide whether to build the most expensive high school football stadium in the country.

It would open in August, 2015, seat 14,000 people and cost $69.5 million. And it would be placed right next to the 10,000-seat arena they already have.

Even in this football-besotted state the plan has attracted criticism, with a local Tea Party group and others claiming the price tag is excessive, exposes the school district to unnecessary debt and that money would be better spent on academic facilities.

Proponents argue that the opening of a new high school means that seven schools will be sharing the 1970s-built Rhodes Stadium from next year and another venue is needed to ease schedules, stage soccer matches and hold marching band contests.They are asking voters to back a $99m bond issue that would cover the new stadium, an agriculture centre expansion ($25m) and a science, technology, engineering and mathematics centre ($4.5m). The choice is all or nothing and the language on the ballot does not specifically mention the stadium, referring generally to "the construction, acquisition and equipment of school buildings in the district".

A modern, fast-growing suburban sprawl 40 minutes west of downtown Houston, Katy is some 500 miles from Odessa, the setting for Buzz Bissinger's celebrated 1990 book examining small-town Texas' all-consuming passion for high school football.

But here, the lights also shine on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

The best team, the Katy Tigers, are seven-time and reigning state champions and their head coach, Gary Joseph, earns $123,000 per year, according to the Texas Tribune - only $5,000 less than the school's principal. This season they have won all nine of their fixtures.

In real terms, state lawmakers have reduced funding for public schools by 25% over the past decade.

Despite the climate of cutbacks, school districts and electorates are happy to spend big on sports stadiums. The costliest to date, Eagle Stadium in Allen, near Dallas, came in at $59.6m. Built for one team, it opened last year with an inaugural crowd in excess of 21,000 and more than 8,000 season ticket holders. It boasts a weight room, a giant high-definition video board and a three-tier press box.

Another Houston-area student sports complex, the 10,000-capacity Woodforest Bank Stadium, opened in 2008 and cost $49 million. Alamo Stadium in San Antonio, which holds 23,000, is undergoing a $35m renovation. Last year, Carthage (population 7,000) spent $750,000 on a 1,200-square foot video screen for its beloved Bulldogs that is probably the largest high school football scoreboard in the nation.

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