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West Middlesex's Clear, Concise Renovation Plan

By Danielle Catalano - writer for

Safety codes, an insurance ultimatum, and the tenacity of a football booster club jump-start a western Pennsylvania school district's campaign to create a new sports complex.

The Gridiron Club is the independent football booster club for West Middlesex High School, a rural high school 90 miles north of Pittsburgh. In 2001, the club made a proposal to the school board to install an artificial turf field and build a new fieldhouse.

"I feel bad for saying this, but the existing facilities that we have now for football are terrible," says Debby Wojtalik, a member of both the booster club and the West Middlesex School District (WMSD) school board.

The school board agreed.

The 32-year-old football bleachers were outdated. The track team ran its relays on a gravel track that was notorious for injuring runners and "with its own water problems," says Wojtalik. Plus, the front-of-the-school location of the football field and concessions areas hampered traffic and school evacuation routes, as well as made crowd control difficult for local law officials.

According to School Board President Tom Hubert—a school board member at the time of the proposal—says timing of the proposal wasn't right.

"The district tries to plan its major capital improvement projects four to five years in advance," says Hubert. "At the time, the high school needed a new roof, text books, and carpeting. We didn't want to increase taxes, and because a bond issue was approved by the public the previous May, we didn't feel right asking the community for more money."


At the beginning of the 2005-06 school year, the school district's insurance policy was reviewed, but the agency's report wasn't good: "Our insurance carrier was concerned that the bleachers were no longer safe, that children could fall through," says Hubert. "They wanted an upgrade immediately."

"We have these old, wooden plank bleachers that are open in the back," explains Wojtalik. "Our insurance agency has been very generous over the years, allowing us to fix things, maneuver things because we financially have not been able to afford many things. But now it's come to the point where they said, 'No more. You have to do something.'"

The school board contacted HHSDR Engineering, a local architectural firm that worked on the district's previous renovation projects—as well as athletic facilities in neighboring school district—to assess the district's sports facilities. Its assessment mirrored the insurance report and added the need for drainage systems, ADA-compliant restrooms, and a track upgrade.

"Those were the major items that had to be totally replaced," Hubert says. "So we had to decide if we were going to move them or keep them where they were. When you add those two together, you're looking at over $1 million."

The decision was made during a public meeting in late October. Community members, law enforcement officials, coaches, the Gridiron Club, and the district's booster club representatives' committee attended, and the groups came up with two goals:

1. Create a community committee to work with the architecture firm to figure out the most cost-effective way to renovate WMSD's sports facilities while making it conducive to the community's overall well-being.
2. Find the resources to pay for the new sports complex without raising taxes.

Ultimately, it was decided to relocate the football field by the track, which was located on the hill behind the school and next to the outfield of the baseball area. To increase space for the baseball team, the district purchased a churchyard adjacent to the ball field that had been used by the track team for throwing events.

Galvanized-steel bleachers with a safety-coded understructure and railings will replace the wooden bleachers. The new bleachers will feature a roof over the area where the band sits. The fieldhouse is slated as a multi-sport facility, with upgraded restrooms and a new locker room, community room, and weight room that will be opened to all student-athletes. Parts of the old track will be converted into a half-mile walking path for the community, and the community room will be available to the public upon request.


The first thing the committee did was talk with the architect about projected costs.

"We had a goal to keep everything under $2 million," Wojtalik says . "We came up with that goal by working with the architect, with whom we met several times. We decided the best way to achieve this was to come up with a 'wish list.'

"We had all the coaches put down what they felt was vitally important to improve their programs," she continues. "We asked them, 'If you had a dream facility, what would you want it to be?'"

Items on the wish list included an eight-lane all-weather track, a custom throwing pit, special stadium lighting systems, and sport-specific scoreboards. By March, the wish list was a 25-page manifesto.

When HHSDR Engineering received the wish list, the school board told the company to focus on three factors: cost-effectiveness, safety, and usage, says Hubert.

While the architects were busy drawing plans the committee started culling.

"We then went through the items one by one, saying what we could do and what we couldn't do; deciding what could be an add-on or if we were going to give up on that idea," says Wojtalik.

In the end, 18 addendums were made, including reducing the number of all-weather track lanes, combining restroom facilities, and paring down the size of the locker room, concessions area, and visitor-side bleachers.

To further keep costs down, the committee and the Gridiron Club agreed that the Gridiron Club would do some of the labor. According to Wojtalik, the majority of Gridiron Club members have experience in the construction and electrical industries. Once the fieldhouse is "roughed in", the Gridiron Club is responsible for finishing the weight room, community room, churchyard, pressbox, and both concession stand areas (football and band boosters). If cement flooring is necessary in those areas, the club will be responsible for that, too. The Gridiron Club will build the locker rooms themselves.

With the wish list reduced and blueprints set, the committee started bargain shopping for building materials.

It was decided early on by the school board that artificial turf would be too expensive for the new football field. Instead, the field would be sodded after the drainage system wa installed. This decision allowed the committee to focus on the track.

"Allowing the track coach to make the decisions on the track was important in helping us make up our minds," says Wojtalik. "Our dream was to have an eight-lane track. Well, that was impossible with the cost. Instead, we're having a six-lane track that's all-weather. We had hoped for four runways off the track, but we had to cut it down to two."

After talking with the track coach, the committee called area school districts with all-weather tracks, asking if a group of committee members that included the track coach could visit their facilities.

"We were able to compare wear and tear, and things like that," says Wojtalik. "Then the architect would bring us samples of all different kinds of all-weather track that we liked and told us, 'Go to this school, go to that school.'"

Ultimately, the committee chose a track system similar to its neighboring school district, Mercer Area.

"Mercer's is seamless and made with a latex material," explains Wojtalik. "The other school's track that we liked was made of a different material, but it remains hard and they're having cracking issues. Mercer hasn't had any problems like that. The track has been in for a long time, and it seems to be holding up very well. It's been 10 years for Mercer, so they're at the point were they have to do some minor repairs, some patches here and there, but they're able to do it themselves, and that was something we were looking for to keep it cost-efficient."

After five months of meetings, wish lists, and road trips, the terms of the construction were set with a price tag of $2.5 million.


When West Middlesex High School's athletic facility renovation took form, the school district began discussions with their bank to secure a loan for the full cost of the project, with most of the loan to be repaid over the next five years. The board's overall financial plan includes a consolidation of bonds and 'swaptions', grant writing; fundraising; state aid; and foresight into the district's next renovation project.

As Hubert mentioned, the school district plans its capital improvement projects years in advance. The new sports complex is no different, and neither were the high school's new roof project a few years back, or the elementary school's renovation project, which is scheduled to begin in 2012.

Under Pennsylvania law, the state pays one-third of the costs of any construction project related to enhancing an education facility. Whatever the costs remains from the educational facility projects, the bonds will cover.

Hubert explains how the bond issue will help pay for the sports complex:

"About a year ago this district used a 'swaption' to move some of its bonds from one company into a different bond market of another company, bringing in $450,000 to pay some of the $2.5 million loan. When the time comes to renovate the elementary school, we will roll over the remainder of the athletic facility loan into that bond issue. Our concern, though, is that the district will have enough to start the elementary's renovation, instead of being eaten up to pay off the new athletic facility—and that's why we're fundraising."

As the community committee grew, a separate fundraising committee formed shortly after the wish list was created; Wojtalik and Hubert are its co-chairs. By May 1, three fundraisers had been set for the summer: a dinner roast honoring a recently retired principal, cow patty bingo, and a Summer Fun Day with games and a Nextel NASCAR Simulator.

The cow patty bingo took place on May 3 on the football field and included several smaller fundraisers such as selling T-shirts, 50/50 raffle tickets, and donor bricks, along with a concession stand. Ed Pikna, a teacher at the high school, the track and field and football coach, and member of the fundraising committee coordinated the event; and the cow was donated by a football player. The winner received $500, but to the surprise of many, the winner donated half of his prize money back to the committee. The total amount raised was $2,700.

According to Wojtalik, Pikna made 100-10 ft. x10 ft. squares in the middle of the football field and surrounded them with a snow fence. Participants then picked numbers, which were hung on poster board outside the fence.

"Once that was done, the cow was brought in and let loose to poop," says Wojtalik. "It could take three minutes or three hours, it just depends on the cow—we waited three hours.

"A lot of people came because it was unusual and funny," she continues. "It became a big social event. Everything went so well that we are planning another one, possibly with a couple of cows in the pen.

The committee's Summer Fun Day focuses on the kids and those who are children at heart. Although the 10 games are still in the planning stages, the Summer Fun Day includes face painting; a dunking booth; a ring toss; a birthday wheel; and ducks in a pond contest. The feature attraction is Nextel NASCAR Simulator, which because of pre-existing regulations, will be free of charge and is why the group has as many events scheduled around the simulator.

Because of the amount of responsibility and time of this fundraiser, the committee has done most of the behind-the-scenes communication work themselves, finding vendors and advertising the events.

The group, though, was careful not to exclude its major resource: the student body. According to Wojtalik, as many hands as possible are needed to make the committee's fundraisers successful. The contributions that non-athletic students provide are just as important and appreciated as those of student-athletes—which is why the committee asked the entire West Middlesex student body to volunteer its time to help with the preparations and activities of Summer Fun Day.

"We have such an awesome group of people," says Wojtalik. "All ages, all stages of life, little kids, grown kids—these men and women are just a really great group."

The Gridiron Club will also do an important part of the fundraising this summer and fall.

"They are one of the most instrumental group of people in our community," Wojtalik says. "Their presence is great because they are financially going to support the complex, plus they're doing a lot of the labor for the complex which is important when you have to be cost-efficient."

According to Wojtalik, the club's 2006-07 fundraising schedule includes golf outings: gun raffles; spaghetti dinners; clothing sales ("West Middlesex things," she says); drawings during football games, running the concessions stand during athletic events; and preparing for the annual football fundraising banquet.

As far as advertising all fundraising events, "Free is the key word," says Wojtalik. "Radio, TV, newspaper, flyers, our school sport Web site— they're all used."

The involvement of non-athletic clubs will be a significant funding factor for the WMSD's new athletic facility. Grant awards and advertising revenue are two areas in which their clubs' impact has been felt.

"Overall, we're trying to facilitate education for all students," says Hubert. "We had to find other creative areas for other students to be involved with this project. It's important that kids have some type of after-school program keeping them out of trouble, and this project helps us give kids that opportunity."

According to Hubert, WMSD has a full-time assistant principal who primarily writes grants. To date, the school has been awarded five grants for it's renovation project. One of those grants was due to the half-mile walking path, which focuses on how the new facility promotes community fitness and helps reduce childhood obesity. Two more grants were awarded for landscaping.

When the decision was made to relocate the football field to the track area, landscaping became necessary—but unexpected—cost. An environmental impact study had to be done because of the wetlands behind the school. Although the study came back positive, the excavation plans had to be specific as to how the drainage system would be installed in order to protect the wetlands—which meant a lot of digging and backfilling.

"That's the biggest and costliest part of this entire project," says Wojtalik.

The district solved some of its cost issues with help from the West Middlesex Safari Club. This outdoor-based club is composed of master gardeners, learning support students, 4-H Club members, and high school students working on their senior projects. Grants were award to the district because the assistant principal capitalized on how this club has been able to merge its education program with community conservation efforts. The Safari Club will thus do all the landscaping.

The fundraising committee is also busy looking for grants. This summer, Wojtalik plans "to start hitting the Internet hard, again, looking for any grants, foundations, and anything that could help us defray some of the costs."

When it came to marketing the new sports complex to the surrounding communities and businesses, the school board consulted its own: the high school's Future Business Leaders of America Club (FBLA).

According to Hubert, the school board approved a curriculum change that allows the FBLA to receive half of the profits earned from successful corporate sponsorship and fundraising campaigns. The students in this club must work with administrators and teachers developing their marketing techniques, and they are responsible for following through on all efforts.

Hubert notes that he would like the sponsorships for the first FBLA campaign to appear on the scoreboards for the first home football game.

WMHS' sports renovation project broke ground on May 8, with the hopes of the football team playing its homecoming game on the new field in mid-October.

Wojtalik says that the community is aware that this project may not be complete when the the 2006 football season begins.

"The inside won't be done, but the field, bleachers, and track will be," she says. "We may be selling concessions out of our cars, but our goal is to get those boys on that field and a roof over those band members. The community is ready for this."

Hubert and Wojtalik strongly believe that open communication was the key factor for WMHS' success.

"We had to move quickly because of the bleacher situation," Hubert says. "But luckily, there's not a whole lot to it. Athletic facilities are mostly cookie-cutter, and we were organized with a clear, concise plan that was ready for the public."

"Everything was upfront," says Wojtalik. "Everyone knew what we were doing and how much it had to cost. Everyone knew what we wanted to achieve and keep costs down. It worked out really well."

"The public meetings were really helpful," she continues. "They kept things on track, kept things going. We had great communication with the architect—which was extremely helpful. It truly was a communication thing. Everyone was on the same page. Everyone wanted to reach the same goal. There were no communication breakdowns. We are literally the last community in our county to improve our sports facilities.

"Now that we have the money and the availability, we want to do it and do it right for the kids."

She adds, "At our all-sports banquet, which honors all athletes and seniors, one of our coaches Mr. Pikna said, 'It's not always about what it costs. It's about doing what is right for our students,'" says Wojtalik.

"We are using that as our motto."

For more information on the West Middlesex School District's renovation project and to learn more about its fundraising ideas, please contact Debby Wojtalik at: is brought to you by a recognized and established name in the school athletics arena, MomentumMedia—publisher of Athletic Management, Coaching Management and Training & Conditioning magazines.