John Skavlem addresses the committee on behalf of the subcommittee looking at how to address deficiencies in the middle-high school's athletic fields.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional School Committee on Tuesday got an earful from advocates and opponents of installing an artificial turf athletic field at the middle-high school.
About 40 people attended a 2-1/2 hour forum in the school's cafeteria, where about an equal number of residents spoke for and against the plan, arguing the idea on grounds ranging from health to the environment to cost.
The School Committee's own Phase 2 Subcommittee took the lead with its chair, John Skavlem, talking about its rationale for recommending a turf field to the full committee.
"The process that led to the synthetic turf field recommendation was we consulted with students, coaches and school administrators on their needs and concerns," Skavlem said.
A major concern has been the lack of reliable availability of the school's current natural grass playing fields, which upset the athletic schedule and require moving "home" games to the artificial turf field at North Adams' Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts sports complex and limit the ability of the school's physical education department to hold classes outside.
Phys ed teacher Brian Gill said Mount Greylock offers 230 "student hours" per day of phys ed, and with a turf field, he estimates that the school could have six to seven weeks more outside classes.
"Thirty to 35 days times 230 student hours per day," Gill said. "That's a lot of time. All spring, we don't get outside until April vacation on a consistent basis. With the turf field, we could be outside all winter, when there's no snow.
"I love the gym dearly, but to me there's no comparison between what we can do inside and outside."
Maximizing the benefit to the greatest number of students — on sports teams and in phys ed class — was the priority of the subcommittee, Skavlem said.
On the other side of the coin were numerous residents who told the School Committee that those students' interests were best served by not making them play on artificial fields with "crumb rubber" infill.
"The problem with crumb rubber infill is that it's made out of recycled tires," Peter Low said. "Tires are made of tons of toxic chemicals. And in their life as tires, they run over gas and oil and things that increase toxicity. There are literally hundreds of chemicals found in these recycled tires.
"The really problematic chemicals are endocrine disrupters. There are neurotoxins like lead and zinc that affect the brain and nervous system. And there are carcinogens, and quite a few of them, it seems.
"No one disputes that all of these toxic chemicals are in crumb rubber. The question is the impact on children."
Low was joined by Anne O'Connor, Nicholas Wright and Bridget Spann in presenting a multi-pronged counter-argument to the artificial turf plan that the School Committee this spring voted to put out to bid.
What no one disputes is that the school district needs to address its athletic fields, in particular its softball and soccer/football/lacrosse fields.
The former, softball, needs to be renovated and improved to bring the school into compliance with Title IX.
The latter, the John T. Allen Field that is home to sports like soccer and lacrosse, needs renovations to make it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
None of the field work was included in the district's recent renovation/addition project at the middle-high school. But the School Committee has earmarked a portion of a $5 million capital gift from Williams College to address areas — like athletic fields — that are not eligible for funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
Lanesborough resident Ray Jones, formerly a member of his town's Finance Committee, argued that the district shouldn't squander the capital gift funds on an artificial turf field that the school does not need.
He said the district could take $2 million of that gift and invest it in municipal bonds, earn a return of 3 percent per year and use the interest to fund proper maintenance of natural grass fields.
Jones also used the forum as an opportunity to renew his criticism of the building project.
"You've got a beautiful parking lot, you've got an overlandscaped property … that some other committee pushed through," Jones said. "An absolute waste of money.
"One of the questions here is: When is enough enough? It's always about the children. I suggest that the fields aren't about the children, neither are these tiles [on the cafeteria walls]. These tiles are so that someone can hang a plaque out there that says, 'I was on the School Building Committee.' We do not need synthetic turf fields. I think enough is enough now."
O'Connor also talked about the spending priorities and warned the School Committee that it was getting a "sales pitch" from its consultant at Providence, R.I.,-based Traverse Landscape Architects, which delivered a presentation at Tuesday's forum during the Phase 2 Subcommittee's time.
"You should look closely at what was missed in that sales pitch, like the disposal cost [of worn out artificial turf] and proper maintenance," O'Connor said toward the end of the forum. "It would make sense to look beyond one company.
Peter Low speaks as one of the local residents opposed to the plan to put an artificial turf field at Mount Greylock.
"I feel like we're shrugging off the health risk [issue]. I wouldn't do that, but if we want to do that, fine. The financial concerns are going to be for a School Committee to address 10 years from now."
O'Connor and Spann both reported their experience working on a pollinator-health awareness program in Williamstown and their interaction with the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at University of Massachusetts at Lowell.
That institute says on its website, "TURI has identified organically managed natural grass as a safer alternative for sports surfaces."
Spann and O'Connor encouraged the School Committee to engage an organic turf professional who could advise the district on best practices to rehabilitate its existing grass fields.
Spann told the committee that such a professional told her that, "Organically managed athletic fields are available for more days of play," than conventionally managed fields because of the strength of the organically grown grass and the fields' ability to hold water.
Spann showed the committee a film prepared by the TURI about organic turf management on playing fields at Forest Park in Springfield.
But much of Tuesday's forum focused on the health of kids, not the health of the grass.
And that meant dueling citations of studies and testimony from local medical experts on both sides of the issue.
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What about the pollution the ground up tires will cause to the school's drinking water/well? Is thwe drinking water tested monthly after all the aquifer disruption caused by the construction. You cannot dispose of whole tires at the landfill as they are toxic.
There is considerable maintenance required for a turf field. A shed to store replacement crumbs, equipment to re-crumb the field. A forklift to lift the huge, multi-ton bags of beads. An employee to maintain it. Spreader equipment, snow blowers for the field.
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