It’s a real stretch to say that spring is in the air, with temperatures dipping back into the 20s earlier this week, but talk about an outdoor facility that has been directly interconnected with the Sag Harbor School District for decades was the big topic of conversation at the Board of Education meeting on Monday night.
Student-athletes in the district began practice for outdoor sports on March 1, in what will be a condensed fall sports season, set to be followed by a condensed spring sports season. Superintendent Jeff Nichols announced that the district had even approved the high-risk sports of football (which is a shared program with East Hampton) and volleyball. It was a departure from the recent winter sports season, when he did not allow the school’s basketball teams to take the court because he felt the risk of COVID spread was too high.
The approval of all fall and spring sports was welcome news for students, parents and fans, especially as Suffolk County said fans could attend the outdoor sports, which was not allowed during the winter sports season. But a matter that has been weighing on the district for some time was taken up on Monday night, as board members listened to several members of the public talk about the growing problem that the school does not have enough athletic fields to accommodate its sports teams, both on the school property itself and at its longtime host site for outdoor athletic events, Mashashimuet Park.
The school’s current contract with the park — which is a private, not-for-profit entity not funded by taxpayer dollars — expires at the end of June, and many members of the public and the school board are concerned about the next steps. If and when another contract is inked, they want to see improvements made in several areas, most notably the baseball and softball fields that have been home to the school’s teams for years — as well as to a restroom that board member Alex Kriegsman described as “state prison level” in terms of cleanliness and quality.
“There is definitely a perception in the community that the district has been getting a raw deal with the Mash Park contract,” he said. “It’s hard to see what we’re getting in return for our money. The kids playing Little League there, it really doesn’t compare well to the fields in other places. There should be a discussion about what happened to the public’s money.”
He also suggested taking a look into what it would cost the district to seek out other host locations in East Hampton or Southampton.
The aging and what many consider subpar facilities at the park, combined with the fact that it lacks the number of playing fields necessary to easily accommodate all of the district’s middle school, junior varsity and varsity teams, has naturally led to the revival of a debate that was at the forefront in the district several years ago — whether to install an artificial turf field on school property. Turf fields have always been controversial for certain members of the communities where they are installed, because of fears that the crumb rubber infill, a key component of the all-weather, multi-purpose playing surfaces, could cause cancer or other adverse health effects. Despite that, they have become increasingly ubiquitous in the past two decades, not just across the East End of Long Island but the country as a whole, largely because they eliminate the issues of wear and tear presented by natural grass and dirt, and are resistant to any adverse effects, such as flooding, from bad weather.
“I’m a natural grass guy by nature, but if we want to get as much use as we can out of the space behind the school, we really should revisit the idea of turf,” said Kevin Dehler, who weighed in during the public input period of the meeting.
Greg Schiavoni, who is the president of the park board, was also present at the meeting. He spoke about how the park employees work hard and do their best to keep the athletic fields in good condition for the school teams, restricting access to them from any other groups, but he did highlight that the fields — all natural surfaces — see a lot of action, pointing out that from March 9 to May 7, the park is scheduled to host 31 school sporting events, with six days in that stretch where there will be two or more going on at the same time.
Mr. Dehler put athletic director Eric Bramoff on the spot when he asked him for his opinion about the quality of the playing fields at both the park and the area behind the high school building, asking him specifically to share how he thought they compare to facilities at other schools.
“I do believe they are subpar,” he said.
“Southold and East Rockaway have made substantial upgrades,” he added, referring to two common rivals of Pierson in both regular season contests and Long Island Championships. “We’re one of the only schools that won’t have a turf field at their disposal.”
Several board members suggested that collaboration should continue between the school and park to try and come up with solutions to upgrade the fields and facilities and make a better experience for the student-athletes, but they did not offer much in the way of opinions about reviving the turf field debate. Input from several members of the public in support of taking another look at that option suggest it will not go away.
Talk about three holidays that have been a topic of discussion and debate was also on the agenda. Mr. Nichols pointed out that Juneteenth as been classified as a legal state holiday, but the decision surrounding what to do about Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day has been more complicated, he said. Taking into account that some surveying of the students and the public had yielded mixed results — with a majority of students expressing a desire to get rid of Columbus Day entirely, and a majority of adults in favor of keeping it — Mr. Nichols said his recommendation as it stands now is to keep Columbus Day on the calendar while also adding Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
The calendar for the 2021-22 school year is set to be officially approved at the next board meeting.
Mr. Nichols also shared his reasoning behind approving all sports for the modified fall season, saying he felt comfortable allowing the high-risk sports of football and girls volleyball both because of the significant decrease in the test positivity rate over the last few weeks, and that fact that both of those sports, while classified as high-risk, are more amenable to mitigation factors that can help decrease the potential spread of COVID-19 than basketball was. For football, the critical factor was that it is played outside, he said, and in volleyball, while it is indoors, players do not come into physical contact with each other, and are separated from their opponents physically at all times. Masking will be required for volleyball, both for Pierson and its opponents, and both sports will undergo regular testing. There will be no spectators allowed for volleyball, because it is played indoors.
Mr. Nichols also shared that the district’s foray into COVID-19 testing, provided by Enzo Labs, was a success, with the first day of testing on February 23. A total of 168 students and staff were tested, (all voluntary), with no positive test results. He said that if the local test positive rate remains low, the school likely will not offer another test date prior to spring break.
School budget administrator Jennifer Buscemi continued with her budget presentation, focusing on the tax levy impact. There will be a tax levy increase of just 1.15 percent, but it will still allow the district to maintain all its current programs and even enhance some of them. She pointed out that the district paid off a lot of debt recently, and the fact that its debt service numbers are going down helps put the district on stronger financial footing.
The board also approved and welcomed Veronica Rodriguez-Mora as the new middle school assistant principal. Ms. Rodriguez-Mora has experience teaching in New York City, graduated with honors from NYU, and was a Goldman Sachs Fellow in graduate school. She has worked for the past year as a teacher at Pierson, and is also bilingual, which is a helpful asset.