Report on the Meeting of the Amherst Regional School Committee, November 28, 2023. Part 2
The meeting was held in-person in the Amherst-Pelham Regional High School library and was simulcast by Amherst Media. The recording of the meeting can be viewed here.
Sarahbess Kenney (Amherst Regional School Committee Chair, Pelham); Margaret Stancer (Union 26 School Committee Vice Chair, Pelham); William Scherr (Pelham); Tilman Wolf (Leverett); Anna Heard (Shutesbury); Jennifer Shiao, Katie Lazdowski, Roger Wallace, and Gabriela Weaver (Amherst); David Pinero Jacome and Miguel Pinero Jacome (student representatives). Absent: Irv Rhodes (Chair, Union 26 School Committee)
Public Comment Received by Voicemail
Richard Selig, a Pelham resident and member of the Pelham Conservation Commission, spoke in opposition to installing an artificial turf field at the high school. He cited a poll by The Atlantic of NFL players that showed that 83% oppose playing on artificial turf. He also reported that the NFL Players Association has called for the abolition of “fake grass”. He cited an NFL study that found the non-contact injury rate was 28% higher on artificial turf than on natural grass, and that foot and ankle injuries occur twice as frequently on turf. He also noted the inhalation hazard posed by crumb rubber, the most common infill on turf fields including all of those in the NFL.
Miriam DiFant, a resident of Shutesbury, member of the Shutesbury Conservation Commission, and the mother of three athletes in the Amherst Regional schools said that she was expressing her personal views only. She said that the installation of artificial turf is ill-advised based on what we know about the health and environmental dangers as well as the costs. Regarding the costs, she said that fundraising is way behind original projections and that those raising the funds have failed to provide updates on their activities. She said the project with turf does not seem fiscally viable and she voiced strong objection to using corporate sponsorships to fill the gap. She said the public has a right to know what kind of advertising such sponsorships would entail, and has a right to weigh in on what, if any, kind of advertising would be suitable at a public school. She added that she worries about the damage that commercial sponsorship could do to the culture of interscholastic sports and that many questions need to be answered before such funding would even be considered. She asked the School Committee (SC) to demand an update from the boosters on the state of fundraising, and for a realistic assessment of the fiscal viability of the project. She noted that inflation and lagging donations put the goal of creating improved fields and restoring the track to a usable state at considerable risk.
Public Comment from Those Present
Maria Kopicki, Amherst, focused on the fact that the costs for installing an artificial turf field are not viable and reminded the RSC of the promise of the Amherst Finance Committee back in April of 2022 that the District would not allow the high school’s unusable track to languish for lack of funds while in pursuit of a larger project. She decried the delay, noting that the district has the funds in hand to repair and reorient the track right now, and that anemic fundraising in support of turf would likely prevent any improvements for years to come. Her full comment can be viewed here.
Tom Fanning, Pelham, a former member of the school committee and a parent of three former Amherst Public Schools athletes, requested that the RSC rescind their original decision to require the installation of artificial turf and adopt a resolution that would allow the installation of natural grass. He spoke in support of natural grass fields and of the danger that artificial turf poses to the environment. His full comment can be read here.
Update on Track and Field
There was a lengthy discussion about the proposed renovations of the track and field at the high school. Among the issues raised but not resolved or clarified were:
- Is the project as originally proposed, financially viable?
- How much money has been raised for the project aside from the $3.4M that has been committed by the towns.
- Will the RSC rescind its original debt authorization which specifies that only an artificial turf field may be installed at the high school, in order to allow for consideration of a broader range of options?
- Who will make the decision on whether to go with grass or artificial turf, and what criteria will be applied in making that decision?
- How and when will a community conversation about the field surface be conducted?
- What criteria will be applied in choosing a design firm?
The discussion did establish the following:
- Two design firms have submitted proposals to produce design plans and one will be chosen, apparently by the Interim Superintendent, in the coming weeks.
- The district has enough money to pay for design work but not for construction.
- It will take the chosen firm 12 months to produce biddable construction documents, at least in part because of their availability to start work.
- The earliest construction could be completed appears to be September, 2026.
- Further public outreach about the project should happen before any design decisions are made.
- The Interim Superintendent’s plan is for the decision on whether the design will use turf or grass will be made in about nine months time, after public outreach and some environmental studies.
The Track and Field Discussion
Designer Not Yet Selected
Slaughter reported that the district had received two “excellent” proposals for site evaluation and design. Although he did not name the firms, Indy inquiries to the District reveal that they are SLR Consulting (from Agawam, MA) and Weston and Sampson (from Rocky Hill, CT). He indicated that the separately-submitted price proposals prompted further questions and that the district is “in the process of figuring out the details and choosing who will do the design work for us.” He said that both companies have considerable previous experience and technical expertise. Amherst RSC member Katie Lazdowski probed for more information about the differences in price bids but Slaughter declined to offer further detail.
[Note: The Technical Memorandum produced by Weston and Sampson in 2022 indicated that design costs are a proportion (12%) of construction costs, which ranges (in 2021 dollars) from $134,000 for just replacing the track to over $500,000 for the artificial turf option.]
Slaughter said that both firms estimated about 12 months until design documents would be completed, due in part to their availability to begin work on this project. He also suggested that this would not be a problem as the design firms indicated that construction bids may come in lower at that time of year (~January).
Fundraising Update Not Available
Slaughter reported that he has not asked the Amherst Hurricane Boosters for an update on the status of fundraising. The Boosters have assumed the responsibility for raising the additional funds needed for an artificial turf project beyond what the four towns will provide. In response to concerns raised about corporate sponsorships, he added that any and all gifts and donations to the district are at the discretion of, and must be approved by, the RSC.
Later in the meeting, Lazdowki stated that she had asked both Slaughter and Kenney to provide an update from the Boosters on the amount of money they had raised to date. Slaughter said that he has not had “the opportunity to find out the answer to those questions”. Kenney said she reached out to the Boosters but has not heard back but could ask that they come talk to the RSC. Heard reported that on November 17, she had reached out to the leader of the Boosters who responded that the leadership would be meeting and promised the information “in a couple of days,” but they did not get back to her. Heard agreed that the Boosters should be invited to the next RSC meeting to report on their fundraising.
Grass Versus Artificial Turf for the Field Remains Contentious and Unsettled
Amherst RSC member Roger Wallace asked for clarification on what kind of design we are seeking and when we need to let the design firm know whether they are designing a turf or grass field. Slaughter acknowledged that a lot of the design work depends on the field surface but that environmental studies will be done first concerning the existing culvert for the Tan Brook and the nature of soils underlying the athletic fields. He said that ”there are a lot of conversations around what we need that are going to have to happen before we can make that decision and those will likely wrap up around nine months from now.”
Leverett RSC member Tilman Wolf, however, expressed concern. “I feel that there’s one fundamental question which will take much more discussion, which is the question of artificial turf versus grass,” Wolf said, adding, “I feel that we are stalling on that important question.”
Slaughter indicated that the design firm could be given the direction to facilitate public input about the field surface. Wolf disagreed about when and how the conversations should occur. “My understanding is that the towns do care which [field surface] option is chosen” and “I feel that should be done here, without them (designers), long before they ever start.“ Slaughter acknowledged that it is within the purview of the RSC to decide how to have the conversation.
Rescission or Revision of Debt Authorization Proposed
Amherst RSC member Gabriela Weaver agreed that “this conversation really still needs to happen” and expressed concern that the prior decision of the RSC to preclude grass field options “was made prematurely.” “I would like to propose that we at the very least rescind the previous commitment to turf and leave ourselves open to a conversation about whether it’s going to be grass or turf going forward.”
Amherst RSC member Jennifer Shiao supported this idea, describing it as “setting ourselves up for success by having all options on the table.” She also noted that the RSC took its initial vote in March 2022 and “Doug is saying that the earliest the field could be completed would be 2026, so that‘s one student’s entire high school career continuing to play on a subpar [track and] field.”
Kenney defended the restriction to artificial turf made in March 2022 as having been requested by the Boosters in order to aid fundraising.
Lazdowski moved to rescind the March 2022 order so that all options can be considered going forward. Both Shiao and Weaver seconded. Slaughter, however, cautioned that “It’s not as simple as ‘I rescind the vote’; it may be, I don’t know for certain.” He recommended waiting until the next meeting so he could find out if formal and specific language is necessary. Wolf supported the intent of the motion to rescind but suggested tabling it. Weaver also indicated a willingness to table and raised the idea of having a motion ready to amend or replace the current debt authorization. Pelham RSC member Sherr agreed that rescission would be necessary to offer authentic choices moving forward and asked that an amended authorization be considered.
RSC Chair and Pelham representative Kenney moved to table the motion to rescind. Lazdowski asked for a friendly amendment to specify that it be tabled until the next RSC meeting on December 12 but Kenney denied that request saying that she wanted to make sure that they heard from the Boosters before the vote. Shiao argued that while she also wanted to get an update from the Boosters, this was not necessary prior to a rescission and replacement or amendment of the debt authorization as it would not take any option off the table. The motion to table indefinitely failed 4-4 (Kenney, Wallace, Weaver, and Wolf in favor; Heard, Shiao, Lazdowski, and Sherr opposed). Heard then moved to table the motion to rescind until December 12 which passed 7-1 (Shiao opposed).
Slaughter said that he would bring the specific language required to rescind and/or amend the debt authorization to the next RSC meeting on December 12.