Last week, voters in McKinney, Texas — 37 miles north of Dallas — approved building what some say will be, at least temporarily, the most expensive high school football stadium in the country. McKinney is next door to the previous holder of that somewhat dubious title, Allen, Texas...
'Anything For Our Kids'
I visited Allen back in 2010, as site preparation was just beginning on the new Eagle stadium. And it's true. I went looking for controversy.
The Internet had been abuzz for months over the stadium's $60 million price tag. People were asking questions like, "Why does a high school need 18,000 seats?" And, "What's the deal with that 38-foot wide, high-def video screen?"
As it turns out, those people were in places like New York. They were here in Boston. They weren't in Allen, Texas. At least not as far as I could tell.
I attended the last home game of the 2010 season. It was on the Friday before Halloween. Every senior and all 550 members of the marching band were in costume. Two guys dressed as the Seuss characters Thing 1 and Thing 2 were singing Journey songs during breaks in the action.
Allen was still playing in a 14,000-seat stadium — and the place was full. I walked up and down the aisles looking for anyone who thought the new 18,000-seat stadium would be too expensive, or maybe too big. Instead, I found Rob Morton. He told me that he was actually worried that the new stadium would be too small. Besides…
"There was a vote. We all voted for it. There was no controversy whatsoever," he said. "It wasn't a close vote. And so I think everyone kind of needs to settle down about that. We're gonna build it and we'll sell it out."
Sitting not too far away, sisters Zena Bender and Debrorah DelReyes didn't see what all the fuss was all about.
"No. Anything for our kids," they said. "We want them to have the best. Always. I'll pay the higher taxes for that. Not a problem."
"Anything for our kids." I heard that phrase over and over. And the voters in Allen weren't just talking about the kids who play football. On my visit to the school, I saw the studio where students produced the daily announcements in the style of a TV morning news show. The equipment looked newer and more sophisticated than the studio at the university I had attended.
But a new studio would soon be built in Allen, along with a new fine arts auditorium and career tech center.
If somebody shows you a Chevy Nova and a Ferrari, you’re gonna pick the Ferrari. I mean, you’re gonna pick nicest thing, of course. It’s just natural human tendency to pick the nicest, most shiny thing.Curtis Rath, McKinney Resident
And there was another phrase that I heard again and again as I talked to people in Allen.
"Allen is very different. It is a one of a kind in our state," said Anthony Gibson, who was the Director of Fine Arts for the school district.
I think Gibson was trying to assure me that I didn't need to worry about $60 million high school football stadiums becoming a "thing" in Texas. Allen was different. It was one of a kind.
$60 Million Stadium Boom?
Except it wasn't. Recently, construction has begun on a $62 million stadium in Katy, Texas — outside of Houston. And then came last week's vote in McKinney.
But these projects had something Allen lacked. Controversy. Not over whether the parking lot was big enough or whether traffic patterns had been properly considered. Actual controversy over whether the projects should go ahead. And the controversy suggests that maybe Allen is different after all.
"They live and die football, in Allen, and God bless ‘em," McKinney resident Curtis Rath said. "That’s what they want, that’s great."
Rath is a community activist and a blogger. Last May he ran for a spot on the McKinney Independent School District and lost. He's also run for city council and lost.
Rath loves high school football. His two children graduated from McKinney High School, and when the town spent $10 million to renovate their current stadium about a decade ago, Rath went along.
Like a lot of people in town, he didn't know about plans for a new stadium until a big blue and white sign went up on an empty lot. It said, "Future site of McKinney ISD Stadium." That sign is only three miles — as the crow flies — from the $60 million stadium in Allen, Texas.
“Yeah, it’s only like a mile from my house, so I had driven by it," Rath said. "Didn’t pay much attention to it until people started talking about it on Facebook and what’s this all going about. I’m like ‘Oh, I’ll find out.’”
He filed a Freedom of Information Act request and published everything he found on his blog. This isn't the first time Rath has been critical of how the school district spends money.
“They decided that they needed to buy laptop computers for all incoming freshmen," he said. "They decided at that time to buy top-of-the line MacBook Air laptops. My question was why spend $1,000 when a Chromebook would serve the purpose? But, I ran into this notion that we need to do the best, best for our kids.”
It's not that Rath doesn't want nice things for the kids of McKinney. He, and some of the other people I talked to, just question whether they actually need the most expensive things.
“If somebody shows you a Chevy Nova and a Ferrari, you’re gonna pick the Ferrari," Rath said. "I mean, you’re gonna pick nicest thing, of course. It’s just natural human tendency to pick the nicest, most shiny thing.”
But those who support the new stadium say it won't be extravagant. At 12,000 seats, it's bigger than what's needed now, but district enrollment is expected to grow in the coming decades. They point out that the building will be multi-use — and it'll include conference rooms and facilities that can be rented out. And while they admit that the nearly $63 million price tag makes it seem like they're building the most expensive high school football stadium in the country, they say they're just being more transparent than other school districts have been. They're including infrastructure and site preparation costs in their budget. Construction of the stadium, they say, will cost just $50 million.
All of these issues were hotly debated in McKinney. And last week the voters decided, by a two-thirds majority, that the stadium should be built.
But another issue came up. One that, according to Curtis Rath, doesn't seem to have affected the outcome of the vote.
"A lot of people talked about the brutality of football and concussions, and predicting to me that in 10 years that football is not going to be allowed to be played at a high school level," Rath said. "We didn’t play up that aspect of it because, you know, I am a football fan. I like to see football. I wanted to see a stadium. It was just the cost and extravagance of the stadium that bothered me."
This segment aired on May 14, 2016.