IN ONE RESPECT the new high school football stadium in Denton, Texas, is like any other in the United States: It has a regulation playing field and a pair of goalposts. But that's where the similarities end. The $18.3 million, 12,000-seat facility has two VIP suites that can accommodate 22 people each and a $900,000 scoreboard with a video screen that shows replays.
The stadium, which was constructed last year with voter-approved bonds and is used by Denton, Guyer and Ryan high schools, is one of the many athletic Taj Mahals that have been erected over the last six years for high school teams in the suburbs around Dallas--Fort Worth. The list of facilities is impressive.
•In Fort Worth, 16 miles south of Denton, Northwest High is set to open a $19.5 million, 9,500-seat football stadium that features 950 club seats and a two-tier press box with two community rooms.
•In Southlake, 23 miles south of Denton, Carroll High plays in a four-year-old, $15.3 million stadium that Major League Soccer's Dallas Burn borrowed as its home field in 2002. Carroll, whose football team was ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today last fall, also has an 80-yard-long indoor practice facility that in 2001 was occasionally used by the Dallas Cowboys.
•In North Richland Hills, 11 miles south of Southlake, a six-year-old, 12,000-seat stadium is home to football teams from Birdville, Haltom and Richland high schools. The $11.9 million complex, which includes a banquet room that seats 800, was chosen as the site of the field hockey competition by the Dallas Olympic Committee in its bid for the 2012 Summer Games.
The athletic-complex craze isn't limited to Texas. In Indiana's Washington Township school officials have recommended the sale of $90 million in bonds, $50 million of which would go to building new athletic facilities. In Tulsa the Union school district erected a 5,662-seat, $22 million multiuse indoor facility in 2003. According to McGraw-Hill Construction, a firm that tracks building in the U.S., about $440 million was spent in 2004 on athletic facilities for secondary and high schools. Approximately 65% of that occurred in Texas, California and Arizona.
The center of the activity, however, is suburban Dallas--Fort Worth. By next year 15 new high school football stadiums will have opened in that area since 2003, at a cost of $180 million. Why there? Some school officials from the area cite population growth; others point to the need to replace dilapidated stadiums. But almost everyone mentions keeping up with the neighbors. "When their teams come into our place to play, fans from other towns say, 'Why don't we have something like this?'" says Denton school district athletic director Ken Purcell.
The arms race is escalating at a time when school funding in Texas is extremely tight. Last year, after more than 300 Texas school districts brought a lawsuit claiming that the state's funding system did not provide enough money to adequately educate children, a state district judge ruled in their favor and ordered the state to come up with a new system by this fall.
Critics of the high-end athletic complexes say that school districts should spend more on education and less on athletics. School officials defend the projects by saying they produce revenue and were voted on by the community. In Denton two bond measures were passed to build the athletic complex; the second, approved in 2002, also earmarked money to build new schools and received 76% of the vote. "I believe athletics is part of education," Purcell says. "We don't ask how much it costs to build the English classrooms. Seventy-six percent of our taxpayers voted for this. And last I looked, this is America. Majority rules." --Gene Menez