Turf Field Debate Returns To Sag Harbor

Pierson installed a new natural grass field in 2017, after the community voted against artificial turf, but the drive for artificial turf could be renewed soon.

For the last few months, the fields and athletic facilities at Mashashimuet Park have been hot topics of conversation and debate at Sag Harbor Board of Education meetings, with the school district and park board of directors going through a lengthy and, at times, tense few months of negotiations before inking a new contract to maintain their decades-long relationship with one another.

At the most recent Board of Education meeting on Monday night, a different Pierson athletic playing field moved into that spotlight.

Toward the end of meeting, board members Ryan Winter and Yorgos Tsibiridis, who serve on the educational facilities planning committee, said that during a committee meeting in November — which was attended by superintendent Jeff Nichols — they discussed options for making the grass playing field located behind the high school “more viable,” and were mulling a pro-bono offer from architectural and engineering firm H2M–which is currently under contract as the district architect–to provide the committee some options for potentially replacing the grass field with artificial turf.

If, based on the updated information they receive, the board members decide to try and make an effort to bring turf to the school, it would not be the first attempt in the district. In 2016, residents emphatically voted down a proposal — by a count of 1,016 to 135 — that would have allowed the board to take cash from its Capital Reserve Fund to increase monies originally approved in 2013 for the construction of a turf field.

A 2013 vote on turf was narrowly approved by taxpayers, 585-507, but in the ensuing three years, the cost increased significantly, by more than $500,000, requiring another vote to supplement the money that was approved for the project in the 2013 vote. Also during that time period, a movement started by several parents was effective in turning public opinion against the turf, because of concerns that the crumb rubber, made of recycled tires, and an important component of turf fields, could lead to serious health concerns and possibly be carcinogenic. After the turf plan was struck down, residents voted in February 2017 to allow the district to use the $1.45 million in funding originally set aside for turf to construct a new grass field behind the school. It has been in use since the fall of 2017, but is already showing the signs of wear and tear that are to be expected with natural grass fields, which require more maintenance than artificial turf fields. Turf fields are virtually maintenance free and can be used as frequently as necessary without any detrimental effects to the condition of the field. Some Pierson student-athletes have provided their own referendum on the grass field — the varsity field hockey team chose to play nearly all its games on the road last season, because they prefer playing on artificial turf, which is present at nearly every other school in the county.

The most recent revival of the effort to bring artificial turf to Pierson is still in its infancy. Winter and Tsibiridis said on Monday that they were merely seeking board member and administrative support to accept H2M’s pro-bono offer, and by and large they received that. In fact, many of them expressed their support vocally. Nichols said he felt that taking the step of finding out what has changed in recent years regarding options for artificial turf was “warranted,” while board President Brian DeSesa said he thought it would be great to “pursue any and all options,” pointing out that the district is limited in terms of space. It’s a problem artificial turf fields — because of their superior drainage and durability when compared to natural grass fields — are uniquely suited to address, and part of what makes a turf field a particularly good fit for a school like Pierson, which has to host several of its interscholastic sports at Mashashimuet Park because it does not have the physical space to build athletic fields on its own property.

Nichols said he felt it was appropriate to gather more information from H2M regarding the materials that are currently being used in artificial turf fields, acknowledging that the technology has moved fast, and it would be beneficial to get “an updated understanding of what turf is [made of] now vs. the understanding that was there two or three years ago.”

Board member Alex Kriegsman expressed his support as well, saying that the grass field “doesn’t seem to be working out the way we hoped,” but he added the caveat that the board members needed to make sure the pro-bono offer wasn’t a biased one, offered only because the company “wants to sell us turf.”

COVID-19 Update

Earlier in the meeting, Nichols provided an update on the still spiking COVID-19 surge fueled by the omicron variant, and, all things considered, the news is good so far for the district.

While the test positive rate at the start of the week was just a hair over 24 percent, with the 7-day average around 26 percent, Nichols said staffing levels — a big concern that has led to closures in some districts around the country and even locally — remain adequate. He said that the district has made a few changes and updates to help ensure the students and staff stay safe in the current surge. The district has relaxed its privacy concerns when it comes to notifications of positive cases, allowing for more specificity regarding details about the class that any students who test positive are in, whereas in previous months, those kinds of details were not released to families. He also said that while the Suffolk County Department of Health issued guidance on January 6 allowing districts to cut quarantine and isolation periods from 10 days to 5 days, the district has, for now, decided to keep its quarantine period at 10 days, a choice the county health department allows districts to have.

“We feel it’s another safety measure,” Nichols said, defending the district’s decision to keep the quarantine period at 10 days. “If you look at the research, there is debate as to whether or not people at five days can continue to spread the virus. Given the high test positive rate, it seems prudent to stick with 10 days for now, but the metric that may force us to change that would be staffing level. But right now, staffing absences have not resulted in staffing levels that would necessitate us going remote.”

Nichols also announced that Elementary School Principal Matt Malone and Middle-High School Principal Brittany Carriero had worked with other building administrators to roll out improved remote learning options for any students who may be in quarantine or isolation for 10 days, but DeSesa chimed in to clarify that the remote options were only available for students in quarantine and were not an option for students who simply did not want to attend school in person, for whatever reason.

Carriero announced that, in an effort to help alleviate the stress, disruption and learning loss that the pandemic has wrought, especially recently, midterm exams were canceled for high school students this year. Middle school students do not take mid-terms.

“Because of the COVID numbers, we felt it was fair, and just didn’t want to have the added stress,” she said, pointing out that the teachers were “on board” with the move.