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Lakewood bypasses voters to borrow 2.5 million for new stadium

HEBRON – Tuesday night, Lakewood School Board members by a 3-2 vote agreed to spend $2.5 million toward a new stadium during a special meeting (the board usually meets on Wednesdays).

Lakewood Athletic Boosters will pay for a turf field, but the district will finance the rest. Board member Steve Thorp voted against the measure, as did board member Tim Phillips, although Phillips was clear he only opposed spending more than $600,000 for a new eight-lane running track. “I don’t see it, sorry,” he said, but approved of the rest of the project.

“It’s a huge amount of money for me to swallow,” said board member Trisha Good. But, she said, the stadium should last for decades and it’s a long-term investment. Good voted “yes” as did board member Bill Gulick and board president Judy White.

In an email to The Beacon, Lakewood Treasurer Glenna Plaisted explained how the stadium’s lease-purchase financing works. “The athletic stadium project is a combination of money from our district funds, and the fundraising efforts of the athletic boosters. The athletic boosters have received current private donations as well as commitments of private donations over the next five years. The boosters will be paying for the new turf field. They have received a loan to cover the cost of the turf and will repay this loan using donations they receive. The Boosters will also be paying for the 12×12 and 4×8 engraved bricks for the donor wall, the donor recognition signage throughout the stadium, walk in cooler in the concession stand, and screen print on the privacy screen that will be on the fence below the home stands.

“The district’s part of project will include items like the new eight-lane track, new bleachers, new concession stand, new and upgraded restrooms, ticket booths, etc. To fund our portion of the project, the board has passed a resolution to enter into a Lease-Purchase Agreement. This type of agreement would be very similar to taking out a loan and repaying it over a number of years. We will be taking our financing request out to the market and obtaining bids back from banks who are interested in entering this type of agreement. As part of their bid they will also be proposing an interest rate. The amount, length of time and interest rate are yet to be determined. The Board’s share of this project will be funded through existing funds.

“As we look to address our facilities needs that were outlined as part of the facilities assessment, presented in December 2015, the stadium was one item on that list. The board and the athletic boosters have made a commitment to improve those facilities. The board has also identified improvements at the high school and middle school that will be completed during 2017 and funded through existing funds and will not require any additional taxpayer money,” Plaisted said.

“To take $2.5 million out of the general fund at this time is dangerous,” Thorp said. He believes doing so would make it increasingly difficult to pass future levies. “If the levies go down, we’ll have to make cuts,” Thorp said, and one place the school district couldn’t cut would be payments for the stadium financing.

Thorp said a new elementary school would be Lakewood’s “footprint” in the community. He doesn’t believe a stadium would provide that footprint. “Borrowing that money could put the district in jeopardy,” Thorp said, adding the stadium began as a booster project. “I don’t think as a whole, we’ve been up front with everybody,” he said.

Buckeye Lake Village Council member Peggy Wells, present at the board meeting, agreed. “I’m shocked the public hasn’t heard more about this huge project,” she said. Wells said the Walnut Township School District entered into a similar agreement and she believes some board members are sorry they did it. Wells said Lakewood should’ve advertised the special meeting more vigorously in local media so more district residents not directly involved with the stadium project could comment.

“This project’s been in the works for years,” White said. She said the boosters have been very public about fundraising for new turf. “As it developed, if we put down new turf, then the stands aren’t ADA accessible,” White said. The stadium project began to grow. “People have put down hundreds of thousands of dollars to see this happen,” she said. White said Lakewood has an outstanding arts program and it could have an outstanding athletic program as well.

“It’s morphed,” said White of the stadium project. “It’s been through stages. This is something that’s about Lakewood, for Lakewood. It’s going to increase the value of the property you own at the lake.” White said with open enrollment, Lakewood must stay competitive with other districts, many of which have modern stadiums.

Gulick said Lakewood takes the stadium and other projects very seriously. “This is just a footprint to start with,” he said. “I think it’s the way to go. We have quality people looking at the numbers.”

Good said the district should look at the new stadium as more of a “Honda project” than a “Cadillac project,” and streamline costs wherever possible. She said committing that sum of money is worrisome to her, but she supported the stadium.

“I’m happy to share that at our school board meeting on Dec. 13 our School Board voted to move forward with the next steps in our facilities work,” said Superintendent Mary Kay Andrews in a press release. “The work began last year when a volunteer group that included school board members, staff, students and the community completed a facilities assessment to fully understand the work that needs to be done to create the best learning environment for our students. We created and prioritized a list of facilities needs totaling more than $20 million. As you can imagine, aging buildings are driving most items on the list. As we worked together, we used a vision statement as our filter: ‘Provide safe, flexible, inviting and technologically rich facilities that promote problem solving, creativity and independent learning and equip our community of learners with the necessary tools, skills and opportunities.’

“When we stepped back to develop a plan to address these needs, we concluded that tackling everything at once was well beyond our financial ability. Instead, we decided to make these improvements over the next few years.

“Staging the projects in this manner allows us to plan appropriately and spend wisely. The final result will be improved facilities at a minimal cost to the community. For example, the projects you saw completed this summer along with others in the next 12 to 24 months are funded through existing funds and grants. That means that those projects are coming from our existing budget and don’t require additional taxpayer money.

“The stadium project is a combination of money from existing district funds and incredible fundraising efforts by our Athletic Boosters. The generous donations they’ve collected will pay for our new turf field.

New buildings will require additional taxpayer money and we are working to keep that cost as low as possible. We’ve established a Capital Projects Fund to save money for larger long-term improvements, such as new buildings, upgrades, or renovations to existing structures. “Additionally, we’re closely evaluating all current spending and are looking for savings to keep costs down for everyone.”

Andrews concluded, “While we’d all like to move quickly, this will be a multi-year journey. We’re establishing a team of staff, students and community members to be our partners in this process. They will review options, share ideas and help to shape the work we’ll do together. To keep everyone informed of our progress, we’ll be sharing regular updates and we’re creating a page on our website where you can see pictures and updates along the way.”

The board fielded many questions from an audience of roughly 50 people.

District parent Dave Lohr asked why the district wasn’t investing in a new elementary school instead of a stadium. Plaisted said a new building requires a bond levy, but the stadium can be financed internally.

“I want to make sure you’re as responsible as you can be” with district money, Lohr said. Education needs to be a priority, he said, but understood the “need and the want” for a modern sports facility. “This is our money. I want to make sure it’s spent very wisely,” Lohr said.

White said Plaisted wouldn’t place her name on anything that isn’t good for the community. “This benefits the whole community,” White said. “I have supported it and I will continue to support it.”

District parent Jon Lynch said he didn’t really have a problem with the stadium itself, but he is concerned that the overall cost of the project, now estimated at near $2.66 million, seems to change constantly. Lynch also shares the concern that the vote wasn’t publicized as much as it could’ve been. “It’s the fact that no one’s been able to pin down a number,” he said, adding that he believes the meeting was communicated to the public to a minimum degree. “But, I’m not sure the district wants to gain a reputation of communicating things to a minimum when there’s this much money involved,” Lynch said.

Some students were clear they supported the new stadium and believe it’s a remarkable improvement to the existing condition of the stadium, which was described as “not functional.”

There will be a groundbreaking ceremony for the new stadium Dec. 21, 1:30 p.m. at the Calhoun Memorial Field.

In other district news, the board recognized Hebron Elementary’s Leaders and Learners program, formally recognizing Hebron Elementary students Brooklyn Kurtz, Charlie Haire, Addison Weekly, and Laykin Prysi for their involvement in the program.

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