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In Texas, the old hands say there are only two seasons: spring football and fall football. But lately there’s a year-round game getting played as well: the competition to build the most expensive high school football stadium in the world.
Why would relatively small exurban school districts like McKinney build enormous football stadiums that will sit empty most of the year (and are often less than half-full even on game day)?
Part of the answer involves the area’s projected future growth. The town’s population has tripled over the past fifteen years. In the 2000 Census, McKinney had 54,369 residents. The most recent estimate (July 1, 2015) put the population at 162,898. Rick McDaniel, superintendent of the McKinney ISD and a former high school football coach, seems to be confident that the spectacular new McKinney stadium will soon fill up. “We’re visionaries,” he told the Dallas Morning News, and said that the stadium was part of “a vision for McKinney ISD that will propel us forward for a long time.” (His office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
The structure of the Texas school system also seems to encourage such infrastructure spending. By law, each ISD board has the power to call referendums when they choose to raise bond money. They act and can raise funds separately from their local municipal governments. But the bond money can go only toward construction and renovation of facilities, acquisition of land, and purchase of equipment, not toward expanding education opportunities for students or paying for teachers. (Texas ranks 38th out of 50 states in per-pupil education spending; in McKinney, per-pupil expenditures totaled $7,345 in 2013, compared to a national average of $11,841, according to an Education Week analysis of federal data.)
Curtis Rath, a McKinney community activist and blogger on city politics, has been an aggressive critic of this arrangement on his site, Texas Transparency; there, fans and foes of the McKinney stadium project hotly debate the issue in the comments. Rath argues that firms that stood to benefit from construction projects joined forces with local landowners, contractors, boosters, and school officials to market the benefits of high-profile school structures to McKinney voters. “They sold it by overstating the need for the new stadium,” he says.
Along with the political and business forces pushing to build new facilities for which there may be questionable need, there’s also the “wow” factor. Like many fast-growth Sun Belt communities, the burgeoning municipalities north of Dallas span vast landscapes interlaced by highways, office parks, and new housing developments. With all of these towns scrambling for residents and businesses to move into their new neighborhoods and shopping centers, splashy sports facilities serve as branding tools.
McKinney City Manager Paul Grimes says that the new stadium will help him better market the town as it competes with Allen, Frisco, Plano and beyond. “While it is a significant investment,” he says via email, “the stadium will…help to attract visitors and families to our rapidly growing community.”