Semkus Memorial Project Postponed

The Michael Semkus work-out station is covered in caution tape behind Pierson Middle/High School. ELIZABETH VESPE

A stop-work order was hand-delivered to Drew Harvey on September 12, just a day before the planned completion of the Michael Semkus memorial workout station, which he’d been fundraising for and planning for over a year.

Now, yellow “caution” tape surrounds the unfinished station behind Pierson Middle-High School, which was meant to remember Mr. Harvey’s friend, Mr. Semkus, who was just 28 years old when he fatally overdosed in 2016.

Throughout his life, Mr. Semkus had a passion for sports, playing baseball, basketball and soccer for Pierson High School. At the age of 16, he became a triathlete.

Mr. Harvey said that on the final day of construction, all that was left to do was lay down wood chips and place the memorial plaque that was created in Mr. Semkus’s honor. Ground had been broken four days earlier for the project, and, since September, he said, people in the community have been asking when the station, which consists of a set of parallel bars and three pull-up bars as well as the memorial plaque, will finally be finished.

Mr. Harvey said the letter he was given did not include information as to why the project needed to be halted, adding that it just said he didn’t have the authorization to do the work — even though he’d received the go-ahead from the Sag Harbor Board of Education earlier in the summer.

“No one has received information back,” Mr. Harvey said over the phone on Monday. “We’re just waiting for the ability to continue. We’re legally not allowed to continue right now.”

Mr. Harvey also questioned why the district didn’t stop the project sooner if it was going to be a legal issue. He said the project wasn’t hidden and is in plain sight behind Pierson.
According to Jordana Sobey, Sag Harbor School Board of Education president, the stop-work order was issued because Ms. Harvey’s volunteer group, which began the work, had not been authorized to do so in accordance with standard district protocols.

Ms. Sobey said there was miscommunication between the district and Mr. Harvey, adding that, ultimately, they were issued a letter from the school attorney asking them to stop work until they could figure out what additional steps were necessary before it can move forward.

Ms. Sobey said the protocols that needed to be followed before work could resume included having a school architect go through the pre-existing plans that had been donated by Mr. Harvey’s nonprofit. The district’s insurance agents also have to approve the plans, she added.

Ms. Sobey said it’s unfortunate that so much work went into the build and it is not yet complete.

“Given that so much of the work had been completed, I was initially pushing to see whether we could just let the work continue and finish the project,” she said. “However, I have since learned that the reasons why these protocols need to be followed is that our insurance may not cover any accidents/issues stemming from the workout station/memorial if we do not follow these steps.”

According to the stop-work order, if work continues on the memorial, the district will take “appropriate legal measures” to stop it, and those involved will be held responsible.
If the district determines to move forward with the project, Mr. Harvey will be advised, the letter states.

Mr. Harvey said this week that this project should have been completed months ago, with planning and fundraising for the memorial beginning June 2018. “It’s been a full year in the making,” he said.

“The building was the simplest part. The difficult part was getting it through the School Board,” he said later, explaining that the board seemed enthusiastic, as did plenty of community members who donated.

If the memorial has to be removed, Mr. Harvey said another possible avenue would be to construct the workout station in Mashashimuet Park, at Havens Beach or at another public location. Although, Mr. Harvey said that would be unfortunate, because Mr. Semkus was a former Sag Harbor School District student who went on to become a substitute teacher in the district.

“We just want it to be finished. The School Board has never once expressed doubt about the project. They’re wondering the same thing we are — why it hasn’t been able to be finished,” Mr. Harvey said.

Since then, the School Board has engaged IBI group, the architectural group in charge of the Sag Harbor Learning Center build, with hopes of having the group look over the plans.