Sag Harbor Schools Decline New Contract at Mashashimuet Park

The Sag Harbor School District on Friday said it would not renew its contract with the park for the next school year.

For more than a century, Mashashimuet Park has been the de facto headquarters for all sports and recreational activities for the youth of Sag Harbor, most notably giving the interscholastic sports teams at Pierson Middle School and High School a place to call home for generations.

But the relationship that has existed between the park — a privately run 501(c)(3) entity — and the district seemingly came to an abrupt halt late last week, when Gregg Schiavoni, the president of the Mashashimuet Park Board of Directors, announced that the district had declined to renew its contract with the park.

The district and the park had been in negotiations because their current five-year contract expires next month. Under the current agreement, the school pays the park $215,000 annually to use the baseball, softball, soccer and field hockey fields as well as tennis courts, and to host cross country practices and meets. The district does host some field hockey and soccer games on the grass field behind the high school as well.

The news comes after weeks in which several Sag Harbor parents had weighed in during public comment periods at recent school board meetings to express their opinion that the park facilities, which have remained largely unchanged for years, were not up to par.

On Monday, Sag Harbor School Superintendent Jeff Nichols sent an email to parents informing them of the decision, and included a nine-page PDF copy of the district’s proposal to the park board for a new contract, and the park board’s response, saying he did so in an attempt to “pull off the blanket of secrecy and let the public know what’s been going on.”

“I’ve been here for 24 years, and I’ve watched kids use that park. And in many ways, we’re lucky to have that relationship, and I think it’s benefited the students and the community,” Mr. Nichols said in a phone interview on Monday morning. “But there are some safety concerns that we included in our proposal that from my perspective should be addressed in order for us to move forward.”

In its proposal, the district sought to establish a new one-year contract, and move to a system where it set up its payments to the park in eight installments that would be “expressly conditioned upon the park keeping the fields, courts, bathrooms and other space in acceptable condition, as well as making several improvements to the premises to the satisfaction of the district and in accordance with the milestone dates indicated.”

School officials broke down the improvements they wanted to see by field, listing what they felt were several issues that needed to be addressed for each of the five fields the Whalers teams use on a regular basis, and said they were expecting a complete renovation of the bathroom, which is estimated to have been built in the 1970s or 1980s. (The park did recently begin refurbishing that bathroom, and is in the process of pricing out new sinks and hand dryers).

In response, the park board indicated it wanted a three-year contract, and in essence did not agree to undertake any of the proposed improvements or renovations — agreeing to only a handful of minor upgrades beyond the usual maintenance — while saying it would consider some of the proposed renovations and improvements, but only if the district agreed to provide the park with estimates, adding the caveat “these costs will be additional to the contract amounts.”

The park also listed several proposed improvements and renovations that it said it would simply not consider, including a refurbishment of the grandstand and the bathrooms underneath it (which are not currently operable), although Mr. Schiavoni said there are plans in place to host a fundraiser 5K run in September to start raising money to address the grandstand.

Mr. Schiavoni expressed disappointment that the park and the district could not come to an agreement and keep in place the longstanding tradition of Pierson athletes calling the park, located roughly 1 mile from high school, home.

“It’s a huge shame that a contract that’s stayed in place for decades was just so easily dismissed,” he said, accusing the district of giving up on negotiations too quickly and being unwilling to compromise. He said the park had reached out to the district in February in an attempt to start negotiating for a new contract, but did not receive any feedback until earlier this month. On Friday, board President Brian DeSesa disputed Mr. Schiavoni’s narrative, saying it was the park board that was unwilling to make any concessions.

On Monday evening, Mr. Schiavoni said the main reason why the park was unable to agree to all the renovations and improvements proposed by the district is because it simply cannot afford to do so, saying the money the district pays the park each year covers the cost of regular maintenance and doesn’t leave much, if anything, left over for capital improvement projects.

He estimated that certain proposed upgrades to the varsity baseball field, including replacing the backstop and all the chain link fencing surrounding the field — something the district indicated it would want done by September 15 — could cost close to $90,000. He said the park board has tried to keep the yearly increase in what they charge the district to under 2 percent.

“We’ve always been cognizant of the school’s financial responsibility to the community,” he said, but added that without a significant increase in funding from the school, the money simply was not available to make the upgrades happen.

Mr. Nichols indicated on Monday that the district would be open to covering some of those associated costs, but Mr. Schiavoni said there was “no dialogue” after the park’s response to the initial proposal.

For Mr. Nichols, the decision to cut ties with the park came down to two primary issues, with the safety of the student-athletes being the main concern. He pointed to certain features he said created unsafe playing conditions for athletes, including chain link fencing surrounding certain fields that is “rusted and busted up,” and also pointing out uneven footing for players on the varsity baseball field.

“When you’re rounding third base, it drops off two to three feet,” he said.

Beyond the safety concerns, he said the student-athletes deserved a playing facility that was comparable to the facilities at other schools across the county, saying that in comparison to what student-athletes at nearby schools like Southampton and East Hampton have access to — artificial turf fields that have become the norm across the county and indeed the country; fully operable bleachers for spectators; clean, modern and spacious bathroom facilities; concession stands — the difference is glaringly obvious.

When asked if the sides would come back to the table at some point, Mr. Nichols didn’t firmly rule it out, but was clear that the district was, at least for now, operating under the assumption that would not happen, and was moving full steam ahead to make other arrangements for the student-athletes.

“We’re always willing to communicate regarding possible things we can agree upon, but based on [the park’s] first response, we didn’t see any movement in that regard,” he said. “That’s why we said, OK, we’re making alternate plans.”

He said the district would use the newly installed grass field behind the high school as often as possible, and was working on finding a new home for the baseball and softball teams.

Meanwhile, the people who would be most directly affected by an end to the longstanding tradition of hosting Pierson sports at Mashashimuet Park started to make their voices heard this week. Sophomore Lizzie Hallock started a petition on titled “Keep Pierson Sports At Mashashimuet Park.”

On Monday afternoon, while making the roughly 1-mile walk from the high school down Jermain Avenue to the park for softball practice, she spoke about why she started the petition, which had garnered 445 signatures as of Wednesday morning.

“The park is such a crucial part of Sag Harbor, and Pierson has had its athletics there forever,” she said, adding that her parents, Nancy and Bob Hallock, are Pierson graduates who also played interscholastic sports at the park. “It’s a big part of Sag Harbor history. Moving to a location that isn’t going to be in Sag Harbor is very disappointing to Sag Harbor athletes, since we won’t have games here either.”

Lizzie, who also plays on the girls soccer team, said she felt the park was safe to play in, and called the fields “beautiful.” She admitted that the bathrooms were due for an upgrade, but said it wasn’t a major issue for her.

“All the kids love the park,” she said, adding that several of her student-athlete peers were in agreement with her. “We were talking about it in our last period class. We’d rather just stay where we are, even if there aren’t any renovations.”