Could millions of tax dollars for school athletics fields be put to better use?

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A large chunk of Hawaii’s tax dollars are going into multimillion-dollar athletics fields for high schools across the state.

For Farrington High School, the dream has been 80 years in the making. Since the campus was founded in 1936, the Governors have never enjoyed a single varsity football game at home.

“I’m not coaching anymore, so I don’t get a chance to reap the benefits, but for our kids, it’s just a dream come true,” said Farrington’s athetics director Harold Tanaka. “It’s just one of those things that we had to deal with. The field was in such terrible shape the last 10 years. We brought people in to work on it, but it had so much use that we just could not get the field back to safe environment.”

That all changes next month when contractors are expected to formally hand the field over to the school.

“This is for the community,” Tanaka said. “It’s not only for football. We’re looking at community use to host events for our community and our schools and that is something that we want to share with everyone in Kalihi.”

Over the past four years, similar athletics facilities have been constructed or are in the process of being constructed at seven different schools ranging in price from just under $4 million to as much as $9.4 million.

It’s a wish realized for many, but could that money be used for something else?

KHON2 asked assistant schools superintendent Dann Carlson, “You look at some of the hot-button issues across the state, overcrowding at Campbell, air conditioning has been a very critical issue — and then people say, ‘Why are we spending $3, $5, $6, $8 million on a facility like this?'”

“Those are critical issues, but I would also argue that athletic facilities are an integral part of the learning experience and a very important part of it, so I feel like for the school, but also the community, this makes sense,” he replied.

Carlson also points out the majority of these facilities, including the new track and field currently under construction at McKinley High School, were the result of Legislative appropriations that are completely separate from the overall Department of Education budget.

“If the project is line-item appropriated, it’s to do that project. I cannot relocate that money, putting it toward a different project without going back to the Legislature and getting approval, and again, that’s few and far between that that happens,” Carlson said.

Like his counterparts at Farrington, McKinley High School principal Ron Okamura is excited for what the future will bring

“When you walk onto a campus and see this, it breathes life and you say, ‘Wow,'” Okamura said. “It sends a message throughout the entire school climate that the kids want to be here, because there’s a sense of pride, beautiful campus, beautiful facilities.”

Okamura says his new facility is much more than just a football field, “it’s about community as a whole.”

Okamura says he looks forward to sharing the new facility that serves as the perfect bookend to the state’s second-oldest school, which celebrated its 150th anniversary last year.

“It’s a good dichotomy. From the front, when you’re looking, you get that historical piece and then you come around the back and you see this and all the upcoming high-rises. It kind of fits into the mode of going into the 21st, 22nd century. So the field itself represents the future of the school,” he said.

But despite his sense of history and excitement, Okamura understands not everyone may see this as a field of dreams.

“I think there might be some resentment, that maybe money should have gone somewhere else, other facilities or supplies, but how the DOE works where our budget is concerned, there is a lot of money set aside for different projects, capital improvement projects across the school,” Okamura said.

Like every other school across the state, McKinley has a master plan to be developed in increments. Part of the plan includes sharing the new facilities with other schools and with the community.

There are even plans to monetize the facilities by renting them out to visiting teams.

Okamura says one thing you can’t put a price tag on is when “our students, people driving past the road, you cannot wait to get on the field because it represents McKinley high school.”

Because they still require regular maintenance, these fields may save a bit of money, but they won’t pay for themselves over their seven- to 10-year life expectancy.

Then there’s the issue of safety. While many coaches, athletics directors, and doctors agree that a good, natural grass surface is best, it’s also widely agreed-upon that a good artificial surface is better than a bad or compacted natural playing field.

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