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SHSD to seek $2.5M in loans for turf field, technology

Voter approval not required for federal funding package

Photo Credit: FILE - Football players slosh through the mud during a home game at St. Helens High School in October. The grass field could be replaced with synthetic turf if the St. Helens School District is approved for a federal loan program.A synthetic turf football field at St. Helens High School could become a reality, the superintendent of the St. Helens School District said Wednesday, Dec. 17, if the district is successful in applying for a federal loan package.

Mark Davalos brought the idea of seeking a $2.5 million loan through the Qualified Zone Academy Bond (QZAB) program before the school board at Wednesday's meeting, after a presentation by the district's facilities manager on potential renovations to the field at Ackerson Stadium.

Jared Plahn outlined four “levels” of work the district could perform on the field, ranging from remaining at the current maintenance level, to installing several thousand feet of drain lines to dewater the field more quickly after it rains, to replacing it with a turf field.

“You could use it every day, 24 hours a day, if you put in a synthetic field,” Plahn said.

But Plahn noted that the turf field option is also by far the most expensive. He estimated it would cost $800,000 to $1.1 million, compared to $7,000 for installing additional drain lines with volunteer labor and up to $100,000 to add even more drain lines with contractor work.

Davalos said he thinks a turf field, together with a new track, could end up costing about $1.5 million.

A $2.5 million QZAB loan, he said, would cover both the field replacement costs and provide money for other district priorities, such as adding more technology equipment in schools and performing deferred maintenance work.

Football players and outgoing Coach Jared Phillips have complained about the field conditions. A group of students appeared before the school board last month to testify that they believe the field is unsafe for play after heavy rains, such as during the homecoming game against Sandy High School in October.

Davalos acknowledged these concerns in his presentation.

“While this community looks to the high school with pride, we are often embarrassed about the conditions and safety of our fields,” he said. “Too often, games that should be focal points for this community get moved away to a safer and newer field.”

Board member Jeff Howell also expressed interest in the potential for using QZAB funds to enhance science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, one of Davalos' stated priorities.

“The thing I like, too, is STEM. We could actually go hard at STEM, K through 12, as part of this $2.5 [million],” Howell said.

Debt service on the zero-interest loan would be $165,000 per year, Davalos said. It would overlap for only three years with current loan payments being made by the district, and after that, the amount the district is spending to pay off debt would drop from its current levels, he added.

The school district would also need a partner to put up $12,500 in matching funds for the loan program, according to Davalos. He said the St. Helens Boosters Club, which supports athletics in the school district, is a likely candidate.

The loan would not be subject to voter approval.

The board voted unanimously to direct Davalos to proceed with the loan application.

“It's fiscally responsible. It's a great opportunity,” Howell said. “I think it's something that is too good ... to pass up.”

However, the district may need to amend its current budget in order to take out a loan. Former board member Matt Freeman advised the school board that it has a policy on the books that prevents it from borrowing money for a project that has not been budgeted for.

Davalos said he will look into the legal issues and recommend appropriate action to the board.

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