13 Investigates: HISD's Field of Dreams comes at time others are lacking

Sarah Rafique Image
Wednesday, June 8, 2022
HISD's Field of Dreams comes at time others are lacking
As some fields overrun with grass and weeds, 13 Investigates takes a look at millions spent on a Houston ISD baseball and softball field.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- There's no real pitcher's mound at Kashmere High School's baseball facility. The entire field is overrun with green grass and the only specks of brown dirt are around the four bases and base paths, where the grass isn't as vibrant from players trampling over it while running from base to base.

Across town, at Worthing High School, the baseball field is riddled with holes from portable buildings that were on top of it while the campus was being rebuilt as part of 2012 bond renovations.

Houston Independent School District trustee Myrna Guidry said parents sometimes have to shine their headlights onto the field just so there's enough light for the students to practice when it's dark outside.

The field at Austin High is also overrun with grass and weeds.

"These children have to feel pride in their neighborhoods. If they don't, then they go to the streets and they do what the streets do," Guidry said. "So we want to create an atmosphere at every campus that would allow the students to say, 'I'm proud of where I go to school and not only do I want to go to school for the programs, for the baseball and the football, I want to go because I enjoy going to a beautiful school that has everything I need.'"

While those HISD high schools have dilapidated practice fields, across town at Bellaire High School, construction crews are finishing up a $4.8 million taxpayer-funded baseball and softball complex that only students who attend Bellaire High are allowed to use.

"I'd like to know, how does that happen now," Guidry said.

The Bellaire stadium was approved by Houston ISD voters in 2012 as part of a $1.89 billion bond aimed at replacing and repairing 40 schools across the district.

The original bond included "$44.7 million to replace regional fieldhouses and improve athletics facilities," according to the district.

None of the district's current school board trustees were in office in 2012 and there's also a different superintendent from when the bond was approved. But, the board has approved additional spending for the complex, including months ago when it approved nearly $162,000 in architecture and engineering costs to finish the Bellaire project.

"By then, the stadium was basically complete," Guidry said. "What sense does it make at that point to cut it off? And so, of course, finish the field, give them a beautiful stadium. Now, come to our districts and do something in our districts."

Bellaire project increases by 88%

Houston ISD trustee Sue Deigaard, whose district oversees Bellaire High School, said the complex first came on her radar around the time she was elected to the board in late 2017.

"Most of this predates my service on the board. It's the 2012 bond. I thought it was all sorted out before I got on the board. Every once in a while there's something that bubbles," she said.

Deigaard said she doesn't know what the original agreement for the Bellaire stadium was when it was approved in 2012, but argued the project needs to be completed. Otherwise, residents will lose trust that future projects they vote for will be completed as well.

"If we don't fulfill the promise in this community, we are going to struggle to be able to do this for any other community," Deigaard said.

Still, 13 Investigates found the Bellaire baseball stadium's cost increased by 88% since 2012 - the most out of any project approved during the bond.

When the district laid out plans for the new Bellaire campus, there wasn't room for the school and a baseball field, but there was a soon-to-be-vacant HISD property just a mile and a half away with enough space to build a new field.

HISD documents show the district originally set aside $2,539,191 for 'Off-Site Athletics' for Bellaire High School. A change order in May 2021 increased the cost to $4,077,677.88. HISD now confirms the total cost for the stadium is $4,775,411.

District documents show most projects in the 2012 HISD bond escalated in price due to inflation and changes in the scope of work. No project increased more than Bellaire High, which went from a $107 million project at the start of the building program to $136 million as of the most recent report. Bellaire is HISD's largest high school based on enrollment.

We asked Houston ISD how it justifies the cost of the complex during a time the superintendent has been pushing equity across all schools. The district referred those questions to school board trustees.

Houston ISD School Board President Judith Cruz said it's expected for estimates to increase from the time a bond is approved to when construction starts, but those increases in costs should not create an inequity.

"If we provide a program that is under our responsibility, so anything that is under HISD should be done with equity," Cruz said. "There is still some leftover bond money to my understanding and anything that is spent should be done with equity in mind."

As part of the 2012 bond, Austin High was slated to get an entirely new facility. Cruz said initial plans included sending students to another facility while the construction took place, but the district ended up placing them in temporary buildings, and redirecting the funds meant there wasn't enough to finish out other parts of the renovation.

"The plan for the temporary buildings was one price. By the time they finished the temporary buildings, it doubled in price, so that then took away the money that was allocated to finish out the track and the baseball field and all these other facilities that were promised," Cruz said.

When we asked Guidry if the extra funds to finish the Bellaire stadium were pulled from another program, she said when the proposal was brought before the school board, there was no explanation of where the extra bond funds came from.

"I didn't see any sacrifices at Bellaire when I looked at what was done and perhaps the administration could better assess (if) they had to pull from here in order to get this," Guidry said. "I didn't see it."

Houston ISD told us the Bellaire project is slated to be done by mid-summer this year.

Although additional funds were approved to finish the Bellaire project, the money isn't flowing as quickly at other schools.

Guidry said it would take $14,000 to fill the holes and level the field at Worthing High's baseball facility, but it hasn't been done.

When Ted Oberg asked Guidry why, she said, "That's what I'd like to know."

"That's where the equity part comes in," she said. "We have a $4 million baseball stadium over at Bellaire - and please understand, I have no problem with all of the children having the best. I love the fact that Bellaire has a beautiful stadium, but I also want nice stadiums in our (schools)."

'Can't even really play'

When 13 Investigates met Cruz for an interview about the inequity in facilities, the baseball field at Austin High was - and still is - overrun with weeds.

"When I look at this, I think kids can't play their best game in a field like this," she said. "They can't even really play much of a game at all."

But those Austin High students are not allowed to play or practice at Bellaire's new facility either.

Despite five other HISD high schools within five and a half miles from the new facility, none of them are allowed to use it. A city ordinance says only Bellaire students can play at its multi-million dollar facility.

The City of Bellaire is part of Houston ISD. Unlike the City of Houston, which doesn't have a comprehensive zoning ordinance, the stadium for Bellaire High had to be approved by the City of Bellaire's council.

The original permit to grant construction and operation of a baseball facility was approved and adopted by city council in September 2017, about five years after the bond was approved. It was amended in 2020 to add a softball facility.

The ordinance provides some limitations, including that it should be "for the sole and exclusive use of Bellaire High School and not by other entities without prior consent from the City Council."

The ordinance even outlines the times when each varsity and junior varsity baseball and softball team can use the facility with a 7:30 p.m. cutoff on weekdays and a 5:30 p.m. cutoff on Saturdays unless it's for a tournament.

It also includes provisions related to parking and traffic flow, prohibiting artificial turf, field lighting and a PA system, and requiring nearly all trees neighboring the property to be preserved.

But, as she walked across the field at Austin High, where the base paths aren't visible and playing a game of baseball is tough, Cruz said students across the district all deserve the same state-of-the-art facilities Bellaire will soon have.

"I don't know all the ins and outs of why that was decided. I know going forward, if we do a bond in 2023 or in the future, that we need to make sure that we are looking at things equitably and making sure that no students are left out," she said. "There's always a finite amount of dollars, but where is it that we're going to make sure that students are getting what they deserve?"

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