By Kathryn G. Menu
While the Sag Harbor School Board of Education has accepted a donation of roughly $16,000 from The Bridge Golf Club to replant the grass recreation field behind Pierson Middle-High School, the board ultimately will have to decide whether it favors synthetic turf or organic grass for the space in the long-term, and cannot ask voters to pick between the two.
During a Sag Harbor School Board of Education meeting on Monday night, the board accepted the donation from The Bridge, which was initially offered through the club’s superintendent of grounds, Greg Stanley. The money will be used to aerate, replant and fertilize the field while district officials — and the public — discuss what options it should present in a referendum vote yet to be scheduled.
In 2013, the district brought a $1.62 million referendum to voters for the construction of a turf field and track behind Pierson. It was narrowly approved, 585-507. In March, a group of parents — led by Diane Hewitt, Jill Musnicki and Susan Lamontagne, who was elected to the school board earlier this month — called on the district to shelve plans to use the funding for a crumb rubber field citing research questioning the safety of the turf. At the same time, the district was unable to approve a contract for the turf field as the cost had increased beyond what voters approved — bids of $1.99 million and $2.24 million were rejected by the board. Board members also agreed to reopen conversations about whether to move forward with synthetic turf or organic grass.
While the district’s educational facilities planning committee recommended returning the issue to voters and allowing them to select
which route the school district should take, on Monday business administrator Jennifer Buscemi said the district’s bond counsel has advised the board it cannot give voters an “either-or” option in a referendum. It has two options, she said — it can use capital reserve funds to make up the difference in the cost of installing synthetic turf at Pierson or it can put in an organic grass field. Either option would have to be approved by voters, and if the funding voters approved for synthetic turf is to be redirected into an organic grass field, Ms. Buscemi said the district would also need approval from the state legislature.
The state legislature, she noted, ends its session next month and will not return for a full session until January.
Board vice president Chris Tice said she would like to see an independent expert present the board, and the community, with its options for the field, and called for a “robust public discussion” on the issue before a decision is made.
Board member Stephanie Bitis recommended the board seek approval from the legislature immediately to avoid that window being closed until January. Ms. Buscemi said she would see if it is possible to get the item on the state legislature’s agenda before it closes for full session next month. She is expected to give an update to the board of education at a special meeting scheduled for Tuesday, May 31 at 6 p.m. to discuss using repair reserve funding for improvements in the district.
Peter Solow, a teacher who has been a member of the educational facilities planning committee since 1993, expressed concerns that students — and the community — are being left with inadequate recreational facilities.
“The impetus for the turf was to address a facilities need, which is the kids and the community need a resource in the community they can use year-round,” he said, adding that there is an urgency to addressing this issue.
While Mr. Solow said he was not advocating in favor or against synthetic turf, he did say he believed if organic grass was pursued for that field, it would likely need rest time throughout the year and would not serve that year-round need.
“And we may have to look for alternatives elsewhere,” he said.
Ms. Lamontagne, who officially joins the school board in July, said advocates for natural grass recognize the lack of proper recreation facilities, but that they also want to ensure children are being provided a safe option.
“Is it possible it will not be a perfect field 12 months a year? Certainly that is possible, but we have been told it could perform better,” she said, noting it is the only playing field at Pierson.
Ms. Lamontagne noted federal agencies have pulled back in their recommendations for the use of crumb rubber turf fields and cited use regulations posted on turf fields that were alarming to her, and other community members. Those include recommendations to not allow food on the turf fields, ensure water bottles are closed on turf fields, and even recommendations that suggest children should remove their clothing and shower immediately after playing on a turf field.
“I know you all care about the health of our kids and some of these things people were not aware of,” she said, also asking the board to look into any legal options it would have to expedite this process.
Board president Susan Kinsella said the board would revisit the matter after hearing back from Ms. Buscemi and legal counsel.
In other news, the board will have a special meeting on Tuesday, May 31 at 6 p.m. to hold a public hearing to discuss using $645,00 in repair reserve funds for projects throughout the district. During Monday’s meeting, the board approved a contract with Lipsky Enterprises for $664,500 to replace windows at Sag Harbor Elementary School as a part of a capital project approved by voters in 2013. Next Tuesday’s meeting will be a discussion about the capital project plan, what is currently funded, and what still needs funding to move forward, according to Ms. Buscemi.
“It seems like most of the key pieces are being done, but everyone should know what is being delayed,” said Ms. Tice.