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Saturday, October 9, 2010

New Gym on Madison School Board Agenda (Not That You'd Know from Reading)

MDL reports the Madison Central School Board will consider approving a $16 million construction project, the majority of which, $8.64 million, would be spent on building the fabled and elusive new gym.

The funny thing is, as I read through this report on the coming decision on the new gym, I find reporter Chuck Clement seeming to go to great pains to avoid mentioning the new gym. Start with the headline: "Board to Consider Action on MHS Renovations." Renovations—not new construction, but renovations, the smaller portion of the project, gets the lead. Perhaps we can cut Clement some slack here: he's simply following the language of the school board agenda, which refers strictly to high school renovations and makes no mention of the new gym.

But then count paragraphs: the MDL article has 19. We don't find one word about the new gym until paragraph 16, by which point 90% of readers have long since turned to the classifieds and entertainment news. Prior to paragraph 16, every line is carefully crafted with the words the board wants to use to sell this project as a necessity and downplay the enormous expense for play-space:
  • Paragraph 8 mentions the 65,700 square feet that will be renovated for $7.4 million first. Then the paragraph turns to the apparently secondary information that we will build "62,000 square feet of new space that would cost about $8.64 million."
  • The very next paragraph details the science, music, culinary, woodworking, and auto mechanics space we'll get from the renovation.
  • Following are code changes, energy efficiency gains, ADA compliance, technology upgrades... all the reasons board president Jay Niedert says this project is necessary "to provide the best education for students" (Clement's paraphrase).
Given all the necessary improvements to our high school, we probably shouldn't be surprised that the board doesn't want to talk about the unnecessary new gym that's taking up more than half the funding for this project.

But the snow job falls apart at paragraph 16:

Most of the new space in the proposal would involve the construction of a new gym just north of the current middle school gym. School officials have argued during previous school board meetings that critics of the project have focused too much attention on the new gym proposal [Chuck Clement, "Board to Consider Action on MHS Renovations," Madison Daily Leader, 2010.10.08].

Actually, it seems that, given where the majority of the money is headed, it's the school board that's focusing too much attention on building a new gym.

According to Niedert, constructing a new building isn't practical in the present economic environment, so renovating the high school provides a good compromise. He added that the current school building still offers many good features.

"It's really a matter of having a modern facility and doing major renovations to get things up to code," Niedert said [Clement, 2010.10.08].

Wait: building a new building isn't practical... unless it's a new gym building? Now I'm really confused. If the economics won't support spending a few extra million to build a new instructional space, how can the board tell us the economics do support spending even more on play space for a small fraction of the student population and seats for a couple thousand people to sit and spectate?

Renovating the high school is a great idea. I hope the school board passes that $7.4 million part of the plan. I hope they scratch the $8.64 million directed at the new gym and apply some of that money toward real educational improvements for the high school.

I also hope they and the local press quit with the word games and admit this project is more about building a new gym than renovating the high school.


  1. Funding of the renovation portion via bond issue for improved library space, career and technical education, science, fine arts and moving the Administrative Offices near the entrance for added student security makes sense. After all, it is a 46 year old high school. There are other issues that don't get as much play such as infrastructure (plumbing in bathrooms, sewer lines) that are very much needed.

    I wonder if partnership funding for the new construction portion could be discussed further. Rather than bond for the entire $8.6 Million (not all of which is going toward a gym), could we discuss the opportunities of partnering on a portion of the recreation center funding with the City of Madison (extra penny sales tax, event tax), Lake County Commission, LAIC and private/business fund raising efforts similar to what are being discussed for the Sioux Falls Event Center? Then it is not built completely on property taxes.

    When we compare Madison at 6500 people to current facilities in Lennox, West Central, Harrisburg, Tea, Dell Rapids and other communities that are smaller than us, we've never stepped up to the plate to create a tremendous comfortable family environment for school, community and regional events.

    The time has come, so let's not screw it up, building too small, like our previous projects.

  2. The most deceptive public statements seem to come when administrators and school board members who want their names on a building plaque or cornerstone start promoting often with the benefit of an architect's money.

    Boards and administrators fail to do routine maintenance and inexpensive improvements on a timely basis and then use their failure as justification for huge expenditures without regard to taxpayer's circumstances.

    Why should taxpayers want to turn over new facilities to school boards and administrators who seem completely incapable of finding simple, routine solutions such as good maintenance?

  3. Indeed, let's not screw up the real and necessary academic improvements. Instead of spending a majority of the money available on a new gym, let's cut the new gym, increase the total spent on renovating the high school to $10 million, and make the best educational facility in the state, right here, right now. Then when that's done and some or all of that debt is paid off, let's see about spending tax dollars on a new gym.

    And let's be clear: the total proposed bill is $16 million. $8.64 million is for the new building, which is mostly the new gym. Here's the description from MDL in July:

    "Their presentation also included the construction of 62,000 square feet of new space that would cost about $8.64 million. Most of the new space would revolve around the construction of a new gym just north of the current middle school gym.

    "According to Nelson, the new gym plans would include four-sided seating for the main gym space, new locker rooms and a new fitness center. The new gym would also seat between 2,000 to 2,500 spectators.

    The need for a new gym would partly come from transforming the current gym located in the center of the high school into learning and practice areas for the band and chorus programs. The old gym would also provide space for a couple of offices and an overhead mezzanine storage area."

    The $8.64 million is being spent primarily for a new gym. That budget line would not exist without the new gym. The new building is all about the new gym. We could wait on that and build a lot better high school. Instead, the educational high school renovations are being given secondary status budgetarily to a new sports facility.

  4. Cory, I'm not going to argue about the fact that a larger gym draws more excitement than basic educational needs, but that is the nature of the beast. School pride comes from many sources, most of it revolves around activities.

    West Central is adding its SECOND large gym. Their first is larger than our Middle School gym and the second will be even larger. While sports seems to drive their district, their test scores haven't faltered in light of the emphasis on football, basketball and other activities.

    Maybe the larger adequate gym is just what Madison Central needs to put the entire school pride puzzle together. It is a piece we've been missing for decades.

  5. Schools need to be pushing academic achievement pride instead of jock pride, white pride, school pride, red pride, black pride, etc.

  6. I urge everyone who is concerned with how fast this project will be pushed, how it will be funded, what the impact will be on local property taxes, whether the architects were given different approaches to consider or just told to do whatever regardless of expense, whether there were different companies bidding, etc, to get involved, call the school board members, COME TO MEETINGS of the school board, ask questions, do their own math as regards their own taxes. This project was given the green light tonight to go ahead, more tours thru the school are planned with various groups in town, and when asked how soon the project could be completed, the architect said 18 months from start and it could be ready by the fall of 2012. And this isn't being rushed thru!

    I honestly don't think anyone on the school board has any idea how it will affect taxpayers. Other ideas for funding were pretty much brushed aside as not feasible, the city has no extra money to help, etc. Well, news flash, property taxpayers don't have all that much extra money sitting around for the next 20 years or so either.

    Any one else have thoughts on this?

  7. Hit the button too fast; above was nonnie.

  8. Thanks for the report, Linda!

    Thing is, I don't need any more tours of the high school. I saw everything that as wrong in the HS when I was a student there for four years, and then when I spent 8-14 hours a day there while teaching from 1998 to 2000. Everything that was wrong with the HS then is still wrong with it, and yes, it's time to fix it. So pour on the renovations.

    But a new gym? No. Not now. Not when the economy is this tight. Not when Russ Olson and Pierre are determined to short local districts of every penny they can. Fix the high school first. Fix it big. Get the kids into good learning spaces. Then when we get that project paid off, let's think about a new gym. Maybe.

  9. I completely agree with you on this topic Cory. Its great to see someone who can see beyound the school board mess. Madison doesn't need a new state of the art gym. Hell, Madison needs a school board that can balance a budget instead of having to opt out to pay bills than turn around and build a brand new school because they put all their money into the building fund.

    Residents have to strap down their belts and spending during this time; school, city, and state should understand and do the same.

    Last time I checked our expensive LAIC hasn't paid off much and business's are still in tough times locally- I dont see how an event center would make things any easier.

    What have we built lately that was to small?

  10. [Casey... last name?]

    Agreed: the timing for building a big luxury gym is bad. I can live with the HS renovations: we should focus on that much overdue project.

    Now I will acknowledge there are some potential benefits to a good downtown events center. Howard is going to see some benefits from the new facility the Rural Learning Center is building on their Main Street. You bring people downtown, host conferences and training programs, and rbing more visitors to the downtown restaurants and retail. You also bring some life to the heart of the city instead of hiding it at the edge of town. Of course, part of the reason the LAIC isn't doing much good is that they have no vision for such integrated development downtown.

    Renovating our downtown is as necessary as renovating our high school; both projects are higher priorities than building a luxury gym.

  11. Meehan... recently moved back to Madison to take a management job of a local business that is located downtown. I'll be the first to say when it comes to politics I do not agree with you, but when it comes to city issues we are actually on the same page!!

    Somedays I wonder who gave our school board a checkbook and how do they ever pass a budget. Only two things we ever hear is their idea's on new buildings, computers, ect than on the flip side of how broke the school is. As far as I know they can adjust the ammounts that gets put into the building fund. Why is that not being done? Why is there an opt out one year, than talk about building of a new middle school or this or that.

    A downtown events center would be great. But I think we still have long ways to go on attracting new business to Madison. We have a HUGE industry sector and a lot of workers for industry. Infact as we saw during these slow last few years it hurt a bit. Madison needs to start attracting entry level jobs. I never understood in a college town how we could never attract something as simple as a call center. And the starting wage at most call centers is pretty darn decent! I worked at them after HS and got by just fine in Sioux Falls where the cost of living is a bit more than here. The LAIC needs to balance out white and blue collar jobs than I think we'll start seeing a real boom in this town.

    I still would like to hear what this town ever builds that is to small. As far as I am concerned or noticed we are quite friendly with spending on projects.

  12. Hi, Casey! Thanks for the reply. The "building too small" complaint often comes from the middle school gym, which is a few feet short of regulation.

    Jobs vs. events center: now there is a worthwhile debate about policy priorities. Which would do more immediate good: creating some number of new jobs to diversify the economy, or building a facility that would generate economic activity? Can we do both at the same time?

    We support a lot of white-collar jobs with DSU and the school district, but yes, more would be good. I've asked Rod this with skepticism: would a call center really raise our standard of living that much? Could we focus more on small-biz and local entrepreneurship that creates more bosses and owners?


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