WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Rob Abel appeared before the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee to make a point that probably united everyone in a very crowded meeting room at the middle/high school.
"I want a grass field," Abel said. "Grass is better in so many ways. Grass is not controversial."
And then Abel got to the crux of his argument.
"Unfortunately, a grass field would be great for four months, and two of those months, school is not in session," he continued. "Even the best maintained grass in all of Western Massachusetts, right here at Taconic Golf Club, is not ready for play until late April or early May.
"I want my kids to play on grass fields. It's not realistic to think these fields will be in good enough condition when they're needed. … There is no perfect answer, but please base your decision on what's best for all the kids."
The seven members of the School Committee will not have to decide for a while whether they agree with Abel that an artificial turf field that allows for more consistent availability for interscholastic sports and physical education is in the best interest of Mount Greylock students.
Later in the meeting where he spoke in late September, the committee decided to reject the low bid the district received in response to its request for proposals to install an artificial turf multisport field and make modifications to its existing fields to bring them into compliance with Title IX and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The reason for the rejection is that the low bid — only slightly lower than the other two received — came in significantly above the dollar estimate the district had from its architect.
The full committee directed its Phase 2 subcommittee, which drafted the original RFP, to prepare new bid specifications that make the Title IX and ADA compliance the base of the project and allow contractors to bid a synthetic turf field or a grass field as add alternates.
It will be weeks before the new bids come back, so the committee members have time to continue weighing the pros and cons of a potential artificial turf field.
After their last meeting, they have plenty to think about.
Although the idea of an artificial turf field is not particularly new for the district, it has generated widespread interest in the community in the months since the School Committee authorized the initial RFP in the spring.
Over the summer, the committee scheduled a special listening session in the school's cafeteria to hear arguments pro and con. And its subsequent meetings have generated considerable comment, as has social media.
The late September meeting featured statements nearly a dozen local residents — including some publicly making their opinions known to the committee for the first time.
Martha Marvin, a biology professor at Williams College and parent of a Mount Greylock graduate, told the committee that she was troubled by idea that the district was thinking of installing artificial turf fields that introduce toxins into the Mount Greylock campus.
"Installing them is not consistent with the values of the local community," Marvin said.
She also joined a growing number of local residents who are concerned about the health risks to the students who would use the turf fields.
Williamstown architect Thomas Bartels, who served on the School Building Committee that produced the newly renovated and expanded Mount Greylock, added his voice to those opposing a synthetic field.
He urged the committee to look at Europe's experience with artificial turf and to learn from the experience of the European Union, which is talking about banning even existing synthetic turf fields.
"Yes, there are other artificial turf fields in Berkshire County, but that doesn't mean building a new one is OK," Bartels said. "Our knowledge about these things evolves, and hopefully we can be alert and responsive. Years ago, people thought lead in paint was a good thing and asbestos in insulation.
"Now, we know better."
Those "other artificial turf fields" formed the basis of the argument from David Armet, who noted that Mount Greylock regularly schedules practices and even games on artificial turf fields at Williams College and MCLA, not to mention the newly installed turf field at Berkshire Community College and synthetic fields at sites like Westfield State University, West Springfield High School and Chicopee Comprehensive, common sites of sectional tournament play for interscholastic teams.
"We are already playing on turf," said Armet, who has addressed the School Committee on the topic previously. "For us to neglect that fact is a major oversight in the process.
"Rejecting a turf field in our back yard but being happy to use it when it suits our purposes is not leadership. It's hypocrisy. … It's a not-in-my-backyard mentality."
School Committee member Dan Caplinger echoed that sentiment later in the meeting during the panel's internal discussion
"I have to say I've been surprised at the extent of the reaction in the community that people against an artificial turf field have had," Caplinger said. "It was in no way consistent with my experience in the community beforehand.
"I saw dozens of kids year in and year out sign up for programs on the Williams turf field. … I still see kids of all ages on that field. I've never heard any concerns about it."
That said, Caplinger stopped short of calling the concerns hypocritical.
"I'm not attacking those arguments," he said. "It seems like a divisive issue. But there was no way I could be on notice it would be as divisive as it seems to have become just because of my experience in seeing how those fields were used and how the community took advantage of the willingness of Williams to share that."
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I believe the track currently inside the Williams' track is artificial carpet, but not rubber crumb. Why not consider installing one of those for bad weather only and using grass most of the time?
Also, gym classes for all students are not held or scheduled at Williams or BCC or MCLA. Why should 100% of our children be forced to take health risks playing on artificial crumb rubber surfaces?
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