Opinion: Regional School District’s Inaction Speaks Louder Than Its Words
By Maria Kopicki
In November 2022, Superintendent Morris wrote a letter to the Town Council demanding a multitude of actions by the Town of Amherst to resolve the urgent situation of the playing fields at the high school and middle school. These demands ran the gamut — from committing all current and future Community Preservation Act recreation funding to the regional athletic fields, to limiting community use on these fields, to funding the rental of additional playing fields. The letter also sought a commitment to fund the design and development of fields, and the staffing and resources necessary to maintain them properly.
It is baffling, then, that the proposed FY24 Amherst-Pelham Regional School District Capital Plan presented at the “Four Towns” meeting this weekend included no request for funding field improvements, only $40,000 to construct a non-potable water well at the high school for irrigation. The benefit is described as “cost avoidance through the reduction in use of metered, potable water”.
The construction and use of such a well may indeed prove to be advisable and beneficial. However, it seems important to first conduct a comprehensive analysis of water issues at the Regional School District’s properties. Poor drainage, nearby wetlands, and the Tan Brook, which runs through both the middle and high school properties, are all important components to understand and address. In addition, an assessment by an athletic field maintenance professional which would include soil testing, seed selection, and a recommended program of care to improve the fields and make them more drought resistant.
It is hard to reconcile the Superintendent’s letter that called for immediate corrective action with the absence of any budget items to directly improve the athletic fields, either this year or in the District’s Ten Year Capital Plan. It is the Region’s responsibility to ask for those funds in their budget.
The Town Council isn’t off the hook either. Under the current model, the Department of Public Works is responsible for maintaining all the athletic fields in Town, including those owned by the school districts. The staff time and materials necessary to do this work requires annual funding in the Town’s operating budget and it is the Town Council’s job to make sure that it’s there.
Finally, the Regional School Committee is causing unnecessary delays in the Track and Field project by refusing to pivot to Option 2 (an enlarged, reoriented track with a grass infield) for which sufficient funds currently exist. Instead, they are clinging to artificial turf which is millions of dollars away from reality, opposed by many people in the four towns that comprise the Regional School District including two Boards of Health, has statewide legislation pending against it, and poses multiple health, environmental, and climate dangers. The longer they delay, the more the costs will rise. Changing course to an achievable goal now makes the most fiscal sense and is the fastest way to get student athletes onto quality playing fields.
3 thoughts on “Opinion: Regional School District’s Inaction Speaks Louder Than Its Words”
I agree the Superintendent’s (lack of) actions are puzzling to say the least. The FY24 Regional School District budget presented by Mike Morris and Doug Slaughter at the Four Towns meeting did *not* request funding for *any* of the things the Superintendent claimed were so urgent. Could it be that the Superintendent’s demand letter was written only as a means to pressure Councilors to reverse their vote on the extra funding for the turf field? Was there really no conviction behind those harsh words?
It is worth reading this document – the Town Manager’s line-by-line response to the Superintendent’s list of demands:
Here are some excerpts, which clearly direct the Superintendent to request in his Regional Schools Budget (and via CPA) the funding he believes is needed:
Mike’s Demand #1: “Commit to reserving all current and future CPA funding for installing grass fields at ARHS until this urgent situation is resolved.”
There has been no proposal to the CPA committee for a project that addresses all of the athletic fields used by the Regional School District.
The majority of these fields are owned by the Regional School District, not the Town of Amherst. All member towns should be consulted to see if they support a larger project of this magnitude. It should not fall to the Town of Amherst alone.
Mike’s Demand #3: “Commit to replacing the requisite number of fields by 2026…”
It is recommended that the Regional School District engage engineers to study and develop a phasing plan to determine what is possible…and explore optimal usage levels.
Mike’s Demand #4: “Commit to funding the additional resources needed to maintain high quality grass fields by immediately increasing the number of DPW staff members who maintain the fields…”
This expense would need to be included in the Regional School District’s budget.
Ironically, nowhere in the Superintendent’s letter was there a demand to fund a Well, yet that is the one request included in the proposed Regional Budget related to the fields.
As for staffing, the Town’s Tree & Ground Maintenance Department does not have adequate staff to properly maintain all of the athletic fields, parks and playgrounds in town. According to the FY23 budget, the department has 7.5 FTE staff at a cost of $469,951: a Division Director, Crew Supervisor, 3 Maintenance Workers, 2 Laborers, and 1 Skilled Laborer/Truck Driver. Operating Expenses were $101,016 [for utilities, equipment, building maintenance at parks, supplies including fertilizer, gas and diesel fuel, materials to maintain equipment and clean park facilities, purchase, replacement or rental of small equipment, uniforms, and training.]
If the Superintendent and Regional School Committee is serious about improving conditions of the middle and high school athletic fields, it is reasonable to expect that they would include *something* in the FY24 Regional Budget. At the very least, an assessment by an athletic fields maintenance professional, as suggested by the Town Manager, and by Ms. Kopicki above. That they haven’t done so is very troubling. Any coaches, students, or parents that feel improving conditions of the fields should be a priority would be well-served directing their advocacy to the Superintendent and School Committee at the upcoming budget hearing. One turf field, which may or may not become a reality in a few years time, is not the panacea for all the field problems that have been described.
Presumably Town Councilors that support improving the athletic fields could also communicate to the Town Manager that funding the Tree & Grounds Maintenance department at a higher level is a priority.
Martha’s Vineyard is in a nearly identical place vis a vis artificial turf. The school committee for the regional school that serves six towns on the island voted for artificial turf on the football field even though the money to do natural grass was in hand and the cost of “turf” was a financial stretch. The planning board for the town of Oak Bluffs, where the school is physically located, voted to deny the request in order to protect the aquifer from contamination by PFAS from the artificial turf. How did the regional school committee take that setback? It is taking Oak Bluffs to Land Court. Generally, municipalities cannot restrict school districts under the state’s Dover Amendment; however, the aquifer-contamination issue may cloud the issue. Stay tuned.
Our situation may be different in that Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury have been asked to financially support only “option 3” for renovation of the track and field, which requires the use of artificial turf; alternatively, “option 2” would use natural grass and is preferred by everyone I have spoken to.
It occurs to me that taxpayers from all four towns could find themselves ahead of the game if a grass field option is chosen. Once the rival towns with artificial turf come to the realization that they have made a poor choice and the time comes for the PFAS loaded turf to be replaced, won’t the natural organic fields be their preferred choice because health, safety and economic benefits will all be enhanced? Once the Regional School Committee and others review the data and understand the literally game changing benefits for the future of our athletes, the result will be cheers from all sides. Amherst should be the leader here. Others will follow and the playing fields will be equal again.