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Archive for Monday, November 15, 2004

Too far afield?

Lawrence schools must balance the need for new sports facilities against many other spending priorities.

November 15, 2004

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Lawrence wants the best facilities it can afford for its young people, but this may not be the right time to consider a major investment in a school district sports facility.

A recent Journal-World story outlined the dismay of parents and a long-time referee over the soccer fields used by Lawrence and Free State high schools. The referee called the Youth Sports Inc. fields used by LHS a "moonscape" because "there's lots of craters." He also noted that Free State is one of only two 6A schools in the state without a lighted soccer field.

Partly because of the soccer field situation, a task force has been appointed to evaluate the district's outdoor athletic facilities. That discussion is bound to include the lack of football fields for Lawrence's two high schools. Free State currently plays most of its home football games at Kansas University's Memorial Stadium, while the LHS has used Haskell Stadium as its home field for about 75 years.

It would be wonderful if Lawrence could say it had the best high school sports facilities in the state, but when money is tight, schools must make choices. The Lawrence school board already is looking at a bond issue that could reach over $60 million to replace South Junior High School and make improvements at other schools. The Lawrence district has a relatively low debt right now, but that could change pretty quickly if the district approved the bond issue currently under consideration and stacked another bond issue for athletic facilities on top.

There is a lot of discussion at universities across the nation right now about the proper role of athletics in an academic institution. There's no doubt that, at both the university and high school levels, sports teams generate a lot of pride. Sports and other activities keep many students engaged in high school and may lower dropout rates. But spending on academics and athletics is a delicate balance. Many people think the spending on college athletics has gotten out of balance, and it would be unfortunate if that trend trickled down to high schools.

There's also a certain irony to the fact that local voters could approve a sizable tax increase to replace or repair buildings or even to build a huge new athletic complex, but state law restricts the use of local tax levies to fund things that most people would agree are far more important to students' education, such as more teaching staff or smaller classes.

If district officials determine there is a pressing need to upgrade outdoor athletic facilities, they should, by all means, take a creative, cooperative approach to the problem. Could the school district partner with Haskell Indian Nations University, Youth Sports Inc. or the city to fill its facilities needs?

Lawrence taxpayers always have been supportive of their public schools, but it's important to spend tax money wisely and put it where it's most needed. A new sports facility might be more convenient or impressive, but is it essential? In the big scheme of things, the answer right now might be "no."

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