Texas K-12 Athletics: Finding the Balance

Designers are working with school districts to create more efficient facilities that address broader community needs and generate more bang for the buck.

In Texas, the combination of aging facilities, growing student populations and a burst of new school construction is driving the need for new athletic facilities that address larger campus issues and maximize limited resources. Districts are exploring sports-related projects with fresh eyes, reconsidering the role of such facilities in the larger context of campus and neighborhood goals.

In recent years, LPA designers have been working with Texas administrators, coaches, parents and students to develop complexes that strike the right balance between budget, program needs and expectations. In many cases, LPA’s K-12 practice worked with Sport + Recreation designers to explore how athletics fit into overall campus design and the broader goals of the district’s master plan.

“You have to look at the bigger picture so that you don’t miss opportunities,” says Arash Izadi, Director of LPA’s Sport + Recreation practice. “And then you need a plan that thoughtfully aligns your budget with your expectations and the needs of your athletics program.”

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The design process for the new Alamo Heights ISD natatorium included an evaluation of the school’s competitive needs, long-term goals and the broader community’s interest.

You have to look at the bigger picture, so you don't miss opportunities, and then you need a plan that thoughtfully aligns with your budget with your expectations and the needs of your athletic program.

On many projects, the design approach went beyond the traditional parameters of an athletic project to explore the context of the facilities, evaluating what made sense based on the needs and resources, in addition to potential cost savings. In some cases, the process found the potential benefits of renovating and extending the life cycles of existing facilities, as opposed to building new ones.

“Administrators appreciate the importance of building within the context of a district’s needs versus its wants,” Izadi says.

Texas schools have always placed an emphasis on the importance of athletics in creating well-rounded students and the larger role athletics play in the campus life. Facility upgrades can address academic, social and campus health issues, in addition to the needs of sports teams.

“Everyone from school administrators and coaches to community members now has a better understanding of the broader value of these facilities,” says LPA Dallas Studio Director Craig Drone.

There is no doubt that athletics play a different role in Texas than in many other states. Texas boasts nine high school football “showplaces” that each cost at least $40 million, according to a recent article in the Houston Chronicle. Hefty price tags aren’t limited to stadiums. Ballfields, gymnasiums, natatoriums and support/practice facilities all can prove costly, especially when new construction is involved.

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New batting cages were part of a comprehensive approach to addressing Carroll ISD’s needs across multiple sports.

“Many districts realize this approach is not sustainable or feasible for them, which makes a focused process essential,” Drone says. “In the context of escalating construction costs and the larger overall needs of the district, it is important to make decisions based on research and an analysis that understands the district’s priorities.”

In fall 2021, LPA completed a four-year-long series of projects for Alamo Heights ISD, including additions and renovations to six campuses. Among the additions were a district-wide natatorium featuring a 39-meter pool with a movable bulkhead, field houses, gymnasiums, bleachers, concession stands and a synthetic turf soccer field for the high school. The natatorium takes full advantage of a small off-campus site and provides significant benefits to the community, addressing many of the district’s priorities.

Alamo Heights High School’s newly renovated Harry B. Orem Stadium is a transformational project for the school. It includes a new grandstand and adjacent athletic complex, constituting significant upgrades for the growing school district. The existing field was retrofitted with a synthetic field that can help reduce injuries, save water and cut maintenance costs.

“Within the larger campus, practically every square foot is utilized,” Izadi says. “We wanted to look for ways to efficiently expand facilities to meet their needs, while seamlessly connecting the old and the new.”

LPA’s work on behalf of AHISD, including several new and renovated academic buildings, playgrounds and infrastructure upgrades, was funded by a $135-million bond that voters approved in 2017.

Getting district bond approval requires community support, but the bar has been raised by changes in bond funding requirements. In past years, projects of all kinds would get lumped together as part of a broadly defined “campus improvements” campaign. Today, there is more focus on the money spent on each project.

“These days, you need more than community support,” Izadi says. “You need community engagement. They must have ownership of the plan, which should reflect their priorities and interests.”

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Carroll ISD programmed a multiphase series of renovations and upgrades to its athletic facilities, including improvements for the baseball, softball and football programs.

The design process must be transparent and empower community members with the knowledge to make informed decisions aligning programmatic needs with fiscal prudence and long-term maintenance capabilities.

“You really need to get to know the community,” says LPA San Antonio Studio Director Sara Flowers. “More than ever, community members are involved in deciding where their tax dollars go, and we truly believe that communities support projects they help create."

In the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Southlake, LPA recently worked with Carroll Independent School District on a multiphase series of renovations and upgrades to its athletic facilities. The project included everything from replacing the football field in Dragon Stadium with synthetic turf to making significant upgrades to the school’s baseball and softball facilities, adding an indoor field house, batting cages, concessions stands and more.

In terms of meeting the community’s expectations, renovations and facility upgrades led the way at Carroll ISD. In many cases, improving and extending the life of what is already there is the most efficient way to address goals and conserve resources, Drone says.

“Maintenance and operations are more critical than ever because more facilities are undergoing renovations, expansions and retrofits,” Drone says. “For most districts, it’s not about having the biggest and grandest stadium, but rather a facility that best represents their community.”

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All parts of the community participated in the planning discussions for a series of additions and renovations for Alamo Heights ISD, which covered six campuses.

In San Antonio, LPA worked with San Antonio ISD on the future of the Spring Sports Complex, a 20+-year-old grouping of ballfields and athletic facilities the district needed to upgrade to meet increasing demand. As a district-wide resource– including hybrid football/soccer fields, baseball diamonds, and a triplex of softball fields – the complex serves an already vast school district.

In the design process, the community and district agreed that new facilities were not the best approach. “The expectations for the quality of these spaces remains high,” Flowers says. “But today communities know that doesn’t necessarily mean building all new facilities.”

Given the complex’s age and usage, upgrades became an imperative. “Here we have an old facility that has some great bones,” Izadi says. “We’re embarking on a comprehensive renovation plan and bringing these facilities up to the standards that meet this district’s needs and expectations, all done on a finite budget.”

At nearby Lanier High School, also part of San Antonio ISD, LPA is working on a series of campus-wide improvements, including the existing track and field and baseball and softball facilities.

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The renovation of Alamo Heights High School’s football stadium includes a new grandstand and adjacent athletic complex, constituting significant upgrades for the growing school district.

You really need to know the community. More than ever, community members are involved in where the tax dollars go, and we truly believe that communities support projects they help create.

But renovations don’t work for every community. In Boerne, a small town just north of San Antonio, the school district is conducting a feasibility study of program, size and cost to explore the best way to build a new football stadium.

The realignment of Texas K-12 athletics doesn’t come down to school districts and communities pursuing only one avenue, whether it’s renovations, expansions or new construction. The design process is about exploring every aspect of the district’s goals and priorities. And budgets alone don’t dictate the scope of work.

“It’s not an either/or scenario,” Izadi says. “Connecting the old and the new means going through a detailed planning process, to identify goals and set realistic expectations that are appropriate and unique to each community’s needs.”