Proposed AISD bond puts major emphasis on improving athletic facilities

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FILE— Amarillo ISD has proposed a school bond that will upgrade campus and district facilities that is on the ballot for the May 7 election.

By most accounts the time has come, maybe even a little past time, for Amarillo ISD to be new and improved athletically.

Whether or not that happens is now up to the people of Amarillo.

AISD has a school bond with four propositions on the ballot for the May 7 elections which will determine largely if the district will upgrade campus and district athletic facilities. Three of the four propositions are exclusive to the AISD athletic department, coming at an estimated price of $105.3 million.

While Proposition A pledges $180.6 million to rebuild 71-year old Austin Middle School and upgrade safety and security at other AISD campuses, Propositions B, C and D are reserved to benefit athletics. Proposition B is to renovate Dick Bivins Stadium, C is to construct a district natatorium and D will provide a multipurpose indoor facility at all four AISD high schools.

Tascosa football coach Ken Plunk, the dean of the city’s football coaches, has been a champion of the project to upgrade the athletic facilities. He sees the bond as more of a necessity than a luxury.

“Some of the things in it are inevitable and things that have to happen from a renovation and repair standpoint,” said Plunk, noting the upgrading of Austin Middle School as the major project. “Others we’ve kind of had in the works which we need to do to progress. We have a 70-year old stadium and at some point we’ve got to make some repairs.”

Plunk has been in the district since 2009 and as far as what’s on campus, not much has changed in that time. The most significant change has been that the four high schools all have turf for football and soccer practices, and all the varsity softball and baseball fields have infield turf which was installed in the 2020-21 school year.

Those are merely small steps in the bigger picture. The bond is symbolic of a long haul mentality to make long overdue updates to benefit the athletic programs.

“I think we’ve come to the point where it’s time for our facilities to be upgraded,” said Amarillo High football coach Chad Dunnam, heading into his fifth year at the school next fall. “I’m not just talking about athletic facilities, I’m talking about our schools need work. We need to provide the facilities we possibly can for our fine arts students and our athletics. It will do a lot for our school district.”

If passed, most people around AISD athletics will say it’s about time.

Going back a long way

Among AISD’s football coaches, Caprock’s Dan Sherwood might have the most unique perspective. The last major AISD bond issue that Amarillo voters passed came back in 1987.

Sherwood, a 2005 Amarillo High graduate, literally can’t remember that, although in 2017 voters approved a $100 million AISD bond which addressed maintenance and infrastructure needs for the district’s aging schools.

“It’s something the district needs and the last big bond issue the district had I wasn’t born yet so it’s time for it,” Sherwood said. “For not a whole lot of money, so much can be done. It’s something I’m extremely excited about.”

As someone who’s lived most of his life in Amarillo, Sherwood is looking at the bond from a civic point of view as much as an athletic and educational one.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of keeping up with the Joneses, I think it’s just going to be an enhancement to our city as a whole,” Sherwood said. “We’ve got the Amazon building, we’ve got Hodgetown and what they’ve done downtown, so it might as well be the same thing for our kids to benefit them directly and it can be utilized by the entire community to come out and use how they need. It’s going to benefit everybody.”

Sherwood said that Dick Bivins Stadium itself hasn’t changed much since he played his last game there. Nor have the campus facilities at any of the AISD high schools for that matter.

Palo Duro football coach Eric Mims is an AISD alum like Sherwood, in his first year back coaching at his alma mater. Mims graduate from PD in 2000.

Prior to coming to PD last spring, Mims was the offensive coordinator at Duncanville, known as an affluent district with a perennially strong athletic program. He thinks AISD needs to keep up with the times.

“Amarillo has nice facilities but some of those facilities are older,” Mims said. “We’ve added beautiful turf to each school, but we have to continue to update those facilities. That’s what happens throughout the state. People build brand new things and update facilities and we’ve done a real good job of updating certain things but there are other things we need to upgrade to continue to be competitive and continue to practice when conditions outside aren’t favorable.”

It’s estimated that improvements to the stands and expanding the track at Bivins will be about $19 million. The natatorium will be about $38 and the proposed indoor facilities will carry the biggest cost of the athletic propositions at $48.3 million. Proposition A carries the biggest price tag at $180.6 million.

AISD athletic director Brad Thiessen thinks the district needs to strike while the iron’s hot in terms of improving facilities.

“All three of the packages B, C and D have some athletic side and even A has a little bit with the lighting,” Thiessen said. “I’m not sure people understand that at Dick Bivins we’ve looked at the bleachers about 10 years and they have to be fixed. There’s some issues with them leaning toward the field with sand underneath them which has washed out.

“We have to fix them and we couldn’t do it eight or nine years ago when we looked at them pretty extensively. While we do that it makes sense to put the eight-lane track in.”

That might bring more track meets to Bivins. But the biggest draw for the bond is what could do for people already in town, especially when it’s cold outside.

Building some shelter

What the coaches seem most enthusiastic about is what could be used every day on campus. That would be the proposed indoor facilities which could be the most used building on campus.

“As far as the on campus all-purpose facilities, there are things that are industry standard,” Plunk said. “You would not build a 5A or 6A school in the state of Texas without having something of this nature. We’re an aging facility. Our athletic facility was built in 1988. We probably have twice as many athletes and students who are going through it.

“If you look around the state these aren’t luxury items. These are things that you need. These are things that are useful and the taxpayers will definitely get their money ‘s worth over the next 40 years.”

From a football standpoint, it would seem practical, especially considering the temperamental outdoor conditions in the Panhandle late in the fall. Dunnam knows from experience what it would mean for his team when compared to what some Metroplex schools have when preparing for the postseason.

“Two years we’ve gone into the playoffs and we’ve been practicing indoors on gym floors when our opponent that we went and played were practicing in their indoor facility on turf,” Dunnam said. “It’s not just for football. Any time the weather is inclement in Amarillo, and that’s often, you see it a lot more days than you really realize, and that’s going to provide every one of those sports an opportunity to get in. They’re multiuse facilities. It’s going to provide great opportunities for our band, our choir and our community.”

Such facilities aren’t uncommonplace in many smaller districts and campuses, even in the Panhandle. Yet, they’re currently lacking in Amarillo.

It’s obvious why football coaches would want an indoor facility, but it’s something which can be shared.

“It’s the one that directly effects me the most, but it’s something that’s going to effect thousands of kids a day,” Sherwood said. “You’ve got ROTC, you’ve got band, the drill team, flag teams and so many sports. We’ve added four or five extra sports since the last bond issue when he had the activity centers, and we’ve about doubled the amount of kids who are anticipating in athletics and extracurriculars.”

Thiessen, who was the head football coach at Amarillo High from 2006-09 before becoming athletic director, sees the proposed indoor facilities as being multipurpose.

“While people sometimes think they’re football workout facilities, they’re so much more than that,” Thiessen said. “They’re going to be used by every sport we have. There’s not a facility that will be used more. Anyone who has one will tell you they’re used all year long.”

With four 5A high schools, building an indoor on campus facility seems like a logical step for AISD. Many smaller districts have done similar.

Mims thinks that it’s necessity for AISD just to stay modern.

“We look at our neighbors to our south and Canyon is implementing some of these things,” Mims said. “They have certain amenities which Amarillo doesn’t have. We don’t want to be like an innercity school district because AISD is much better than an innercity school district. Canyon, Bushland and Borger all have indoors.”

The difference, of course, is that AISD is a multischool district. Servicing the athletic needs of several schools carries a higher pricetag.

Who’s willing to pay?

Over the long run, the bond will have to be paid for through taxes, although spread out over many years.

Many Amarillo residents who don’t have or will have children attending AISD schools might be reluctant to pass such measures, although residents who are 65 or older who have a homestead exemption have their tax rates frozen and won’t see an increase to pay for the bond.

“I understand the sentiment,” Plunk said of raising taxes. “I think we want to get the most bang for our buck when it comes to taxpayer dollars and I think we’re good stewards of taxpayer dollars. I totally respect somebody who looks at this and says I don’t think we need these things. I think a poor way to look at your community is to say ‘How is it going to directly effect me?’ I certainly think that’s a factor.”

One factor is that a lot of citizens won’t see an immediate benefit from the bond. It will take awhile for the project to be realized, but Dunnam thinks residents should view it more as an investment.

“I would think that’s always a concern when someone’s taxes are going to go up,” Dunnam said. “For me, one of the biggest concerns is elderly people whose income is fixed. They certainly can’t afford a tax hike, but their taxes are locked in. That’s something we need to remember. For people who can work for a living and pay taxes, this is a minor tax hike for them.

“This a tremendous improvement to our facilities and the resources we can apply to our youth. I think you can sell that. It’s a small sacrifice for a huge gain we’ll see for our youth.”

That sentiment might not be immediately tangible to the community at large. If the bonds are all approved, construction might have to be parceled out over an extended period.

Mims thinks the success of the bond at the ballot box might hinge on who’s on the fence as far as improving facilities is concerned.

“Some people are comfortable with their taxes where they are and that’s definitely understandable,” Mims said. “Amarillo has been one of the more conservative cities in the state and the taxes are relatively low here, so for that tax increase to happen, it could effect people who aren’t stakeholders in the district.”

Thiessen thinks it’s a matter of appealing to the community spirit to get people to buy into the bond.

“You pay for the things that you need,” Thiessen said. “I’ve been part of different bonds at different school districts and I’ve never yet found a bond that passed that people were not extremely proud and excited to have. When you put them on a bond you’re telling your community that these are necessities we need to compete and use the space. I’ve never found a community that was not extremely excited with a bond that passed when it was all finished.”

One plus might be Amarillo’s relatively low tax rate, which might lead undecided voters to embrace a project they believe they can afford. Stretched out over 40 years, that might make it an easier sell.

Plunk thinks it’s simply practical.

“We’re talking about investing in the future of Amarillo for 40 years from now,” Plunk said. “I always tell people to think back to 1987 if we hadn’t passed the bond to put the athletic centers in. Where would we be now? We couldn’t operate.

“These are things that are going to have to happen on campuses there are so many more participants in extracurricular than you had in 1987 when we built those facilities. This is not for me to get something nice, it’s something to serve the students and the community.”

Dunnam thinks it’s an issue whose time has come.

“I just think it’s been a long time coming, Dunnam said. “It is needed. If you walk through our buildings every single day you know it’s needed. There’s some things built in those bonds which are going to provide kids some better opportunities to achieve at a high level.

“If you vote one, you vote them all. I support every single one of them. Every one of them are needed desperately.”

Regardless of how much people feel these facilities are needed, approving any of the propositions would show that people in Amarillo are ready to have nice things. Bringing a natatorium to town, for one thing, would mean that Amarillo was no longer one of the bigger cities in America without such a facility.

Plunk is hoping that instinct appeals to local voters.

“I believe in Amarillo,” Plunk said. “I believe the people want to invest in their young people every bit as much as people in other communities do. Is it a big price tag? Yes, it’s fairly big, but it’s not big in how few bonds we actually ask taxpayers to pass.”

Note: Here’s a tool voters can use to find the exact amount of your investment. Please click the link below.

https://www.amarillokidsfirst.com/calculator

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