School Committee Chairman Dan Caplinger, left, and Jamie Art participate in Thursday's meeting.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional School Committee on Thursday agreed that it wants to hold a public forum to gather more input before voting on whether to advance a plan to build an artificial turf playing field at the middle-high school.
In a special meeting that featured public comment from proponents and opponents of the turf field, School Committee Chairman Dan Caplinger pressed his committee members to identify the kind of information they needed in order to make an informed decision.
Although two of the committee members present said they knew how they would vote if forced to make a decision right now, the consensus was to continue to the public conversation, including a forum like the session the committee hosted last summer.
"I already have my answers for my own self," Regina DiLego said. "I just don't feel the committee as a whole has answered the questions. I think there are still people on the committee who need more clarification to come to a decision on their own."
How that information gathering is conducted is yet to be determined.
But Caplinger sought and received from his colleagues their permission to be the point person to interact with advocates on both sides of the issue in order to help create a structure for a public forum.
The committee members, meanwhile, gave him direction about the kinds of questions they want to see addressed.
"I do think we need to look at our existing fields and how they are being drained and managed so we can bring them up to speed," Christina Conry said. "We have to look at how we bring water [for irrigation] … whether a new well or a runoff system.
"When you look at that piece, it will bring in the piece of what does the ideal varsity [natural] turf field looks like versus an artificial turf field."
Conry also said she wants more information about what an artificial turf field's components are and, more specifically, how they can be disposed of when the field reaches the end of its life expectancy.
Jamie Art said that he wants to see a comparison of the long-term fiscal impacts of grass versus synthetic fields — costs that, for artificial turf, would include regular replacements mentioned by Conry.
"One of my biggest or maybe the biggest concern is the cost implications of the Phase 2 project," Art said. "We have had some feedback from the town boards and Finance Committees [in Williamstown and Lanesborough]. … I don't want us, as a School Committee, to get too far over the tips of our skis in a way that we are getting at cross purposes with the Boards of Selectmen and Finance Committees.
"I think it's important in terms of institutional goodwill … to have a discussion about what we're doing and the future tax consequences of that."
Art also suggested that the short-term decision — whether to build a turf field — be viewed in a broader context of whether the district needs to create a stabilization fund to address capital needs like turf replacement if it goes the synthetic route.
"One of the missing pieces from the big forum earlier was a real understanding of the cost of the replacement for maintenance 10 or 15 years down the line," Conry agreed. "Who pays to throw it out? Does that fall back on the school district to throw it out? We don't want to dump a bunch of garbage on people 10 years from now."
DiLego gave Caplinger a long list of questions for the planned forum:
"Are we opposed to artificial turf altogether or is it just the crumb rubber [infill]?" she asked. "What are the true costs? Is getting water to a turf field feasible? If we need to look at artificial, what do we want it to look like? Are we willing to pay more for a different infill that doesn't have those [carcinogenic property] concerns attached? What is runoff going to look like? How much of the [Williams College capital] gift are we willing to spend? Or are we going to go back to what we've talked about in the past and do fund-raising? Do we want to commit money from our operating budget to the field? If we look at it long range … if it's going to put us so far out, do we need to address the Title IX and ADA issues now?
"That's the stuff the forum needs to answer for us."
The artificial turf field proposal came out of the work of an ad hoc committee created by the School Committee to look at how the district should address the needs of its athletic fields. The immediate need is to address the Title IX and Americans with Disabilities Act deficiencies that need to be corrected in the wake of the addition/renovation project at the middle-high school itself.
The School Committee long has intended to address the field issues with proceeds from a $5 million capital gift that Mount Greylock received from Williams College at the outset of the building project. Since none of the grounds work now under discussion could be paid for with support from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (which is funding the add/reno project), the capital gift quickly emerged as a likely funding source.
Caplinger noted Thursday that among the complications with a discussion of long-term costs is that while the installation of a turf field clearly would be a capital expense, the upkeep for either a synthetic field or an improved grass playing field might not be in line with the intent of the Williams gift and is more appropriately considered as part of the district's operating budget.
That brings into play the question of whether digging a new well — one of the solutions discussed for maintaining better grass fields — is an acceptable use of the capital gift.
That said, water for irrigation likely is a need for the campus whether it installs an artificial turf field or replaces its current football/lacrosse/soccer field with a grass surface.
"No matter what we do, those fields will require water," Superintendent Kimberley Grady said, indicating the natural grass softball and baseball fields.
After months of debate in and out of School Committee meetings, there is little in the way of consensus on the project. Caplinger did share some information that could address at least one of the issues raised by artificial turf field opponents.
He said the district's Phase 2 subcommittee, which is developing plans for the fields, is recommending the project be designed with BrockFILL, an organic alternative to the crumb rubber infill more common in artificial turf fields. He said the Phase 2 subcommittee decided it was not cost prohibitive to go with the wood product replacement for the more typical fill made from recycled tires.
That switch could allay some of the health concerns expressed by community members who have pressed the committee not to install a field with potentially carcinogenic rubber.
Caplinger is hoping that a public forum will be one step toward getting a decision that all members of the committee can live with.
Some of the officials in the room told him to make sure the next forum is a little different from the July session.
"I think a forum would be very helpful, but I would like to have a clear agenda and goals for that with as much information as we can have beforehand as possible and disseminate to the community beforehand," Allison Carter said. "Hopefully, it will have a moderator who can help keep us very focused on that. I don't want it to be a debate. I want the information we're using to be as impartial as positive. I don't want it to be speculative."
DiLego told said the committee needs to think about bringing in outside opinions. In July, the only "expert" in the room was from Traverse Landscape Architects, the district's consultant on the project.
"I just think if [the information] only comes from the person we're looking to work with, the feeling is they're giving us the information we want to hear, not necessarily the information we need to hear. I think it's incumbent on us to find the people to bring the information."
Caplinger said he did not feel the Traverse presentation favored one side of the question but he understood DiLego's point.
"I believe part of the reason for choosing them in the first place was there was experience on both sides," Caplinger said. "They can do an artificial field. They can do a natural field. It's up to the committee to decide.
"But I hear what the public is saying — that, for whatever reason, their impartiality is being called into question."
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