SOUTHINGTON — Improvements to Southington High School’s sports facilities have stalled after nearly $17 million in funding failed to gain approval at referendum on Nov. 8th.
The town sought approval to allocate $16,945,000 toward gradual improvements to the sports fields over the next three to four years, but 10,761 residents, 54% of the overall vote, opposed the proposal.
Voters did approve a separate referendum question this election, authorizing $7 million for roof work at Southington High School.
Despite the track and field project failing to pass, officials are pursuing other avenues to secure funding, spacing out improvements over a longer period of time. Even without complete funding for the plan, School Superintendent Steve Madancy and other officials emphasized the necessity of the upgrades to the school’s sports facilities, as several have not seen significant improvements in 40 years and pose potential safety risks.
“We're in the process of pulling out of the master plan what are the projects that weren't necessarily enhancements, but the projects that were essential based on the age of use, or effective life of that particular parcel, as well as some of the accessibility and Title IX concerns that were raised throughout the process,” Madancy said.
Currently the track, tennis courts, bleachers on Fontana Field, and lights for the girl’s softball field are the parts of the original proposal that are considered to be the most pressing. The track is considered a hazard for runners as it’s been worn down to the concrete foundation, making it easy for students to trip and injure themselves.
The bleachers are in a worse state, as they remain largely unaltered from when they were originally installed in the 1970s and require a structural engineer to check them frequently to ensure they’re not at risk of collapse. Even then, the bleachers largely lack handrails, and they easily become slick and allow items to fall to the ground beneath them. They lack many of the amenities and safety features that other high schools have at their sports fields, which makes it among the highest priorities for the school to replace.
“We are just going to have to go back to the drawing board to see what the costs are going to be to do the rest of the work. Because quite honestly, the rest of the work on the fields and the athletic complex are necessary. The bleachers are the original bleachers. They're not handicapped accessible. I get nervous going on them, and I'm not handicapped,” said Colleen Clark, Board of Education chairperson.
The school administration is working on a cost evaluation of the work that they hope to present to the school board in December for consideration for next year’s budget. If their plans are accepted, work is not expected to begin until late 2023 or 2024.
The other parts of the improvement project are considered postponed for now, though the administration hopes to continue to roll them out in phases — just over a longer period of time than anticipated, due to the lack of fully allocated funds. Madancy noted that the school may put the issue of funds to a referendum again in the future.
Though high school sports are important to Southington residents, administrators feel that between economic concerns, the money already being asked for the roofing improvements, and a lack of strong advertising to voters, residents weren’t entirely sold on what they see as a necessary project.
“I think it was having it combined or juxtaposed against the roof, it made it seem that much more so of a want than a need because no one can dispute the need to maintain roofing on a facility. Whereas some could argue for the impact on an athletic complex that it doesn't benefit all students, only certain groups, and therefore maybe didn't support it,” Madancy said.
In October, Madancy and the Athletics Director Steve Risser said that the sports facilities at SHS don’t just benefit the students, but the entire community. Many Southington residents come to run around the track and make use of the various courts in their free time. With their current state of disrepair, they say improvements in the coming years will benefit those beyond just students in athletic programs.
“At the end of the day, we want to have a facility that we can be proud of. I've been to other schools, I've been to other athletic complexes, and we have some shortcomings that we need to address in ours,” said Clark.
Which improvements will be addressed first remains unclear. More concrete plans will be presented before the school board in the coming months.