The Amherst-Regional School Committee discussed their planned approach to the conditions of the athletic fields at their June 15, 2019 meeting (the June 11 meeting had been cancelled). Coaches from several of the high school teams, as well as a student athlete and a parent, spoke at public comment to remind the committee of the poor condition of the fields and the need for both short- and long-term solutions.
Superintendent Michael Morris referenced the Weston and Samson report (see also here and here) that documented use of the fields at 150% of what is recommended and insufficient availability of playing venues to meet the demands of the district and town. The report also noted the lack of a clear and concise field use policy. Morris acknowledged “the lack of clear management planning” to control the overuse as well as insufficient funding for maintenance of the fields. He pointed out that expectations for field quality have changed over time and that most neighboring towns of a similar size have invested in an artificial turf field but Amherst does not, and will not, have one in the short term.
Morris also reported on an update provided by outgoing Athletic Director Rich Ferro that there is currently no mechanism for and no one responsible for managing the field use. The plan is for the town to create a central, web-based public calendar to manage field use and to develop a protocol whereby Department of Public Works (DPW) staff who are expert in turf management will decide whether fields can be used.
Committee members Eric Nakajima (Amherst) and Peter Demling (Amherst) asked for clarification about who would be making policy and use decisions. DPW Superintendent Guilford Mooring, who wrote the draft policy, indicated that administrators at the School District and the Town Manager would decide regarding finalizing policies, not voting bodies such as the Town Council or School Committee. Superintendent Morris stated that the DPW would communicate with the Athletic Director when determining field usability but that the conditions of the fields would determine whether they are used, not public pressure.
Committee member Kip Fonsh (Leverett) wondered about the relationship between the Town of Amherst and the district and whether the cost of maintenance to prevent conditions from deteriorating would be included in the budget going forward. Morris acknowledged that the relationship is complex and that although advocacy is required across multiple towns, he has “not heard broad support” from elected officials of all four towns. He pointed out that the Regional budget for grounds maintenance materials has increased from $5,915 in FY18 to $14,441 in FY19 and although it was level funded for FY20, the decision was made to increase actual spending to ~$34,000, as a deficit if need be, because of the urgency of the situation. Labor costs and equipment (provided by Amherst DPW) are not included in these figures.
The consultant’s report also proposed several fee-based options (participation, user, concession, and tournament fees) to fund operational maintenance costs. Morris indicated that the region and town have shied away from these in the past but will have to talk next year about how to pay for maintenance in an environment with so many financial constraints. Demling inquired about uncollected participation fees and Nakjima wondered whether they are addressed with the same approach as for uncollected lunch fees. Morris will have Sean Mangano, Director of Finance and Operations for the Amherst schools provide figures about this, and said that the district tries not to be punitive, has been unsuccessful in collecting fees, and will be transitioning to the non-punitive lunch model in the future.
In answer to a question from Nakajima about whether more staff is needed for ordinary maintenance, Mooring said that more seasonal employees are required – there had been 12 in the past but only 3 this year. He pointed out that graduating high school students and college students used to work summer jobs at the DPW but that there is no program currently to encourage them to do so. He also stated that “When you talk to the counselors at the schools, they are trying to send us people who shouldn’t be operating equipment at all.” Morris noted that families and community members can also volunteer their time under the supervision and direction of Superintendent Mooring by reaching out to him directly.
Ferro’s plans for field use changes for the 2019-2020 school year, done in consultation with coaches, involve moving varsity field hockey to the middle school multi-use field so that the high school field hockey/ultimate field can be rested. The boys lacrosse field will also be rested this fall with football practice, which is usually held on this field, moved to Community Field. A public meeting is to be scheduled in late July to update the public on progress on the fields and the website.
Not discussed was what happens when events are scheduled but fields are not suitable for play and whether there are contingency venues for such occasions.
Also not discussed were long-range planning and capital spending on the Regional and Town Fields. The report from Weston and Samson, the same firm that produced the DPW Building Feasibility Study, proposed multi-year, phased work on the Regional School District, Community, and Wildwood Elementary School fields that would total between $12.2 and $18.7 million dollars, and would divide the costs about equally between the Town and Regional School District, plus over $400,000 annual maintenance costs. Morris stated that this would be discussed further in early fall 2019. Demling encouraged advocacy by residents of all four towns for capital spending if they want this to be pursued. The report also mentioned the following Town properties in terms of being part of recreational usage by residents but did not make recommendations for improvements as part of this study: Mill River, Fort River Elementary School, North Amherst Field, East Street School, Kiwanis Park, Groff Park, Crocker Farm Elementary School, and Plum Brook.