EDITORIAL: A School board: replace those bleachers
There are three good reasons why the Freeman Public School Board should vote to approve the purchase and installation of new bleachers for the not-so-new-anymore Freeman Junior-Senior High School gym, which was discussed at the school board’s Feb. 10 meeting:
1. The money is there.
2. No other major improvement to the physical plant is anywhere on the horizon.
3. 28 years and counting.
So, let’s break it down.
THE MONEY IS THERE
School districts like Freeman Public are allocated a certain amount of tax revenue dollars annually that fall into different categories — including one that is known as capital outlay. Capital outlay funds can only be used for physical improvements to the campus itself, like a new bus, new computers, a new roof, windows or a lunchroom renovation.
Or gymnasium bleachers.
It’s important to remember that, while a portion of capital outlay funds may be transferred to the general fund (45% of what is budgeted for a fiscal year), those dollars are not designed to be used for general operating expenses like payroll.
Freeman Public budgets around $1.2 million annually for capital outlay and about $361,000 of that remains for 2019-2020. But when factoring in the carryover from previous years, Freeman Public’s capital outlay fund balance stood at $1,540,136.10 at the end of January.
That’s $1.5 million available to the district right now. In cash.
Capital outlay funds are designed to be used. Believe it or not, the state actually wants school districts to spend that money to improve their physical assets, not save it for a rainy day. Replacing bleachers is exactly the kind of thing these funds can and should be used for.
The Freeman School Board committed at its Feb. 10 meeting to spend $28,790 to strip, sand and repaint the gymnasium floor at the junior-senior high school.
Tearing the old bleachers out and installing new ones would cost $94,596, per a quote from Seating and Athletic Facility Enterprises, LLC of Ellendale, Minn., bringing the total cost of the gym makeover to $123,386.
That would leave $1,416,750 remaining in the district’s capital outlay fund balance before any February expenses.
NOTHING ELSE ON THE HORIZON
The Freeman Public campus is in good shape, thanks largely to the proactive approach former superintendent Don Hotchkiss and previous school boards took to maintain and upgrade the plant. Not only does Freeman Public continue to stand as one of the finest all-around facilities in the area, there’s not a lot of work that needs to be done.
The district recently used capital outlay funds for a major roof project at the junior-senior high school and also resurfaced the track, but those projects are done and paid for. No other big potential capital outlay expense has surfaced, which clears the way for the new bleachers.
Yes, things come up. Freeman Public will no doubt be looking to purchase a new bus in the near future and it still has to use capital outlay funds to serve long-term debt; of the $1.2 million that is budgeted annually, about $400,000 of that goes to help pay off the elementary school built in 2009.
But with a fund balance of $1.5 million and another fiscal year less than five months away, there’s plenty of breathing room.
28 YEARS AND COUNTING
The bleachers were installed when the junior-senior high school gym was built in 1992, making them 28 years old. A lot has changed in the nearly three decades since, to say nothing of the wear and tear the bleachers have taken.
While the wooden bleachers are comfortable, well-seasoned and structurally intact, they are showing their age. The biggest challenge facing the district is the motors that are going out on the east side unit; it takes three times as long as it should to open up and retract that set of bleachers, and it’s only a matter of time until those motors go out completely.
Superintendent Kevin Kunz told the board it will cost $15,000 to replace the motors; a strong case can be made that that is poor use of money on aged bleachers that wouldn’t even meet building codes if installed today.
There are other issues that 28 years of use have led to: the guard rails on the ends and handrails down the aisles have gotten wobbly, the bleachers can no longer adequately support the scorer’s table and — most importantly — they do not include the cutouts that accommodate spectators in wheelchairs.
Finally, since the board has already agreed to re-do the gym floor, it seems logical to replace the bleachers at the same time Imagine the look on people’s faces when they walk into that “new” gym for the first time next fall.
More important than even that, though, is that the plastic units that are being installed these days are safer, meet code, last longer and are easier to clean. More than a few people will be happy about that.
Board members have stated a number of reasons why the bleachers should not be replaced. The old wooden ones bring a sense of nostalgia; the money should be saved; this simply isn’t the right time.
On the contrary, this is exactly the right time to do it.
By replacing the bleachers, the Freeman High School gym will feel like new and stand tall as one of the finest around — just as it was when it opened 28 years ago.
The school board will meet in special session Monday night, Feb. 24 to decide which direction to take. Board members owe it to the district and the community to make the frequently used gym the very best it can be and should absolutely approve what is both an exciting and needed project.
The Courier editorial reflects the opinion of Jeremy Waltner and Tim L. Waltner.