Sunday, November 23, 2008

Fieldhouse Followup

After my last post on the Fieldhouse, I received two responses from Board members calling me down for my characterization of the executive session of Nov. 10 as a "snout-counting". Upon review, as they say in the NFL, they are quite right, and I owe the Board an apology.

For one thing, I was venturing an unsubstantiated opinion as to "appearances". I had not then, nor do I have now, any actual knowledge of what transpired in that meeting. By putting my unsubstantiated opinion out there, I unfairly put the members in a position of being unable to defend themselves without breaking oath as to keeping executive sessions private.

Aside from my unprofessional and unfair characterization of the executive session, I would take back that whole section of last week's article if I could because it was really irrelevant to my primary point. What's done is done, all I can do at this point is offer my sincere apology, and I do. SAISD trustees serve without pay, they mostly show up prepared, to be sure, we have seen worse Boards than we have today.

That out of the way, back to the fieldhouse funding. To the extent the two responses addressed that point, they pointed out that the existing fieldhouse is in terrible shape, no disagreement there, it is in sad shape. Then both put forth the idea it was a valid investment in "economic development".

Here is the first point we diverge on. We have a few entities dedicated to economic development, Chamber of Commerce, COSADC half cent sales tax Corp., the hotel occupancy tax, as well as private groups representing restaurants and retail stores. ASU has a vested interest in both the fieldhouse and economic development in general, a healthy economy adds to the luster Rallo needs to attract a 10,000 student body. The interest of these bodies in contributing to the fieldhouse fund has been somewhere between zip and diddly.

Sports-related "economic development" schemes are finally coming under close scrutiny nationwide, and it ought to here. Grant the best assumptions, and I don't in this economy, who gets these travelers' dollars? Hotels, restaurants, retail stores, maybe the hawkers selling Cokes and snacks in the stands. We really want to build our economic future on the strength of jobs as retail clerks, waiters and hotel housekeepers? Nothing wrong with those jobs, I've done two of them, but solid investment in a strong local economy? It is to laugh. To be fair, neither correspondent made economic devlopment the primary reason to support this expenditure.

As one of my Board respondents reminded me, this private fundraising effort actually goes back four years rather than two. Timing was bad, it butted heads with the Library effort, and a lot of philanthropic money went to books instead. Unfortunate, but perhaps people with money rank books above athletics. Whodathunkit in West Texas, but there it is.

As far as I can determine, this $6.5 million fieldhouse is the largest single infrastructure project SAISD has funded outside a bond subject to voter approval in, at least recent history. I think it would be the largest such ever. Compared to the items on the bond we approved, only two elementary schools received more money, Goliad and Crockett, and they were near total renovations/new construction.

The members talking to me expressed a) the need for repairs; and b) had this fieldhouse been on the ballot, the bond as a whole would have failed. I agree with both points. Prop Two failed by less than 600 votes, and it is taken as given that the "competition gym" component sank it. It is possible that everything, collapsed into one bond might have squeaked by, but had we further burdened it with a fieldhouse, I don't believe voters would have gone that stretch.

I know, because I hear from them, voters feel this fieldhouse appropriation is "inappropriate", if not a betrayal of their "yes" vote on the bond.

I sympathize with the urge to do this project before costs escalate further, cost has already doubled in 4 years. That does not mean there is not something on the spectrum between total, first-class rebuild and flat make-the-plumbing-work short-term repair.

I know Jeff Bright scrambled to come up with the funding SAISD is proposing. I might even be talked into the notion that long-term, purely economically, this expenditure now is the better route. It would take some tall talking, but possible. I also know that as a political reality, the voters will see it as breaking faith with them this soon after a close bond election, and that breach of faith, long-term, will come back to bite us next time we go to the bond issue well.

The proposed fundraising efforts are laudable, borrowing some from the Library effort. I promise to support that with a personal check and my support. As I said last week, this fieldhouse funding got lost in the noise of the bond items. SAISD needs to make a better effort at persuasion of donors before they undercut the expressed will of the voters.

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