Sunday, December 03, 2023

Time for capital investment in Whitefish High athletics

by Amina Quargnali-Diehl and David Diehl
| October 25, 2023 12:00 AM

After the failure – by a margin of less than 200 votes – of the proposed bond to support expansion of the Whitefish High School and athletic complex, I’ve heard grumbling in the Whitefish community that seems focused on the proposed athletic complex.

This sentiment was captured in the Pilot’s editorial cartoon on Oct. 11, which showed the bond as a man, squashed under a large rock and holding “$11.6M Athletic Complex” in his free hand: the clear implication being that paying this much money for a high school sports structure is school district overreach and an extravagant waste of taxpayer dollars.

I’d like to express a contrary view: that this money actually represents a long overdue investment in the Whitefish community. Here are some facts about the existing Whitefish outdoor athletic facilities, starting with football.

The district rents Memorial Field (the high school football stadium area) from the Glacier Twins, which in turn rents Memorial Field from the city of Whitefish. Rent for the Fall football season costs the District $7,400 (last year baseball was an additional $4,000 of rental cost to the Whitefish School District). The actual cost to run just football at Memorial Field is closer to $25,000 which includes, among other costs: porta-potty rental, fertilizer and equipment rentals and materials necessary for transitioning the field over from baseball to football and then back again.

For that $25,000, what the district and our kids get is: a field with a pot-holed and poorly-surfaced playing field that invites twisted ankles and injuries; porta-potties because stadium bathrooms are grossly inadequate; no locker facilities for visiting teams; insufficient bleachers to accommodate most home games; numerous safety issues associated with the layout of the facilities like exposed screws and deteriorating plywood throughout; a pressbox built of ⅜ inch plywood that has outlived its life expectancy and has rodent issues, and outdated communications (internet and power) systems which mean Whitefish High School can’t stream home games for locals or visiting teams.

Moreover, the terms of the district’s lease agreement with the Glacier Twins means that the district can’t advertise at Memorial Field which limits its ability to raise advertising funds for school/district needs.

Moving on to Whitefish High School track and field: I was, frankly, shocked to find out that the current black rubberized track wasn’t built through public investment like a bond but was instead bootstrapped over 30 years ago by some parents and local businesses.

At this point, that heroic attempt to provide a track for Whitefish athletes has decisively outlived its life-span. The substrate that the track was built on is settling and cracking, so while it badly needs to be resurfaced, it’s not worth the $90,000 that would cost. The track and field area has: no locker room facilities for visiting teams, no bathrooms, no bleachers, no concessions stand and no press-box. It has none of the internet and power systems needed to be able to stream events and frankly even running the timing software for meets is a challenge and crashes lead to lengthy delays.

My teens both compete in high school track and field, and having attended all of their home and most of their away meets I can say that our track and field facilities are arguably the worst of any Class A school we compete against.

A relative bright spot in terms of the outdoor facilities our Whitefish athletes use are Smith Fields -- except, of course, the district doesn’t own and must again rent. Smith Fields currently charges the district $35 per athlete, and the cost to the district last year for Smith Fields (soccer and softball) was about $5,000.

But, what are our kids getting? No locker rooms for our athletes or those they compete against (when snow, rain, hail, etc hit, players and spectators have to huddle in the quickly overcrowded concessions area or the visiting bus). No power or internet to run game-play software or to live-stream games. Inadequate bleachers for fans for our award winning soccer teams. We still have to pay about $2,500 for porta-potty rental due to inadequate bathroom facilities.

And – perhaps most importantly – Smith Fields are a 10 minute drive from Whitefish High School. Not only do kids have to carpool to get to/from practice after school, that dispersal also places significant barriers to community and fellow student attendance. Kids can’t just walk over there from the high school, middle school, or community to watch and appreciate games. Getting the high school band to the field to support the players becomes a complicated, expensive and time-consuming endeavor. And Smith Fields are wide open. Anyone can access the fields from anywhere which could compromise player safety.

I’m not an architect, accountant, general contractor, school administrator, committee member or engineer so I rely on those experts who, after substantial community feedback and involvement, came up with a figure of $11.6 million to give this city a safe, modern, unified, centralized outdoor athletic complex that will also allow cross-curricular connections with high school PE, culinary arts, marketing, and music programs. Not to mention a new athletic facility would be available for the entire Whitefish community – not just any future Olympians – to take advantage of.

The proposed $11.6 million athletic facility improvement represents approximately 34% of the proposed $33.7 million dollar bond. Therefore, if passed in a future vote, property taxpayers would be asked to pay an extra $77 per year (at the Whitefish median home price of $900,000) to support our Whitefish High School athletes and community.

For all the aforementioned reasons, next time this bond comes up let’s vote a resounding “yes!” to support our student athletes.

Amina Quargnali-Diehl and David Diehl, Whitefish

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