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The turf field at Williams' Weston Field. The Mount Greylock Regional School Committee is holding a public forum on the possibility of one at the high school.

Mount Greylock School Committee Hears from Public on Turf Question

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The newest members of the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee last week got a crash course in the arguments for and against building an artificial turf playing field at the middle-high school.
 
On Tuesday evening, they have another chance to decide whether to move forward or again press the pause button.
 
The committee is scheduled to take a vote on a $44,000 proposal from architect Perkins Eastman to draw up bid documents for a renovation of the school's playing fields that includes a multi-sport synthetic turf field.
 
Without the updated documents, the district cannot put the project -- projected to cost north of $2 million -- out to bid. Committing to the $44,000 expense now makes it a near certainty that it ultimately will reissue the request for proposals.
 
It would be the second time in a year and a half that the district would be soliciting bids for the project. The first round came in well over the projected cost of the project and were rejected in September 2019.
 
Since that time, nearly the entire committee has turned over, with four members of the seven-person panel joining since October. Some of the new members asked Chair Christina Conry to arrange a forum to help acquaint the members with the issues and allow community voices to be heard.
 
The community responded. Twenty-six residents participated in last Monday's initial hourlong forum. They took turns -- by design -- addressing the committee with their reasons why the district should or should not add a new synthetic field that would serve the high school's soccer, football and lacrosse programs and add capacity for outdoor physical education classes when natural fields are either frozen or water-logged.
 
An hour later, Conry chaired a second hourlong session at which two people recognized as leaders on either side of the question each gave a 15-minute presentation and took questions from committee members.
 
In addition, several more residents submitted written comments to make their cases which were entered into the committee's record.
 
For the most part, the evening's discourse was civil. A couple of people said the time allotted for each speaker in the opening session was insufficient. One dismissed the other side's points as "pandering nonsense."
 
Far more common was reasoned discussion like that of John Skavlem, a former Williamstown Elementary School Committee member who was recruited by the then-Mount Greylock School Committee to head up a subcommittee looking at how the school might apply part of a $5 million capital gift from Williams College to correcting deficiencies in the middle-high school's fields.
 
Though the most pressing need might be modifications to address deficiencies under Title IX and the Americans with Disabilities Act, the group Skavlem led, which came to be known as the Phase 2 Subcommittee, developed a more comprehensive plan that included the artificial turf field.
 
Skavlem on Monday outlined the process that led to the 2019 proposal and the need for an artificial field given the limited availability of grass fields during the school year.
 
"When [physical education teacher Brian Gill] came in and told us how transformative [an artificial field] would be and the number of students beyond athletes it would serve, that's what convinced us this was the way to go," Skavlem said. "The difference is playability. It enables kids to get on the fields at all different times going into the spring, going into the late fall, after rain.
 
"Grass won't solve the problem. That's what we keep coming back to. A synthetic field has the potential of benefiting every kid at Mount Greylock. That's what really moved the committee."
 
Pushing back against the argument from many residents that the School Committee's process felt "rushed," Skavelm told the committee his Phase 2 Subcommittee held numerous open meetings and heard from varied points of view.
 
Boyd, who was invited by Conry to summarize the reasons not to move ahead with an artificial field, reminded the School Committee that a lot has changed since the district first put the project out to bid in 2019. Not only has the committee itself changed, but the district has a new superintendent, the committee has seen enrollment numbers projecting dramatic decreases and the COVID-19 pandemic has strained budgets throughout public education.
 
"Mount Greylock Regional School needs some kind of strategic infrastructure plans for its athletic and physical education programs over the next 10 to 20 years, and it needs to support that by a well-crafted financial plan," Boyd said.
 
Boyd pointed out what she identified as flaws in the economic analysis done to date on the artificial turf field. She pointed to a study of cost per playable hour submitted by Traverse Landscape Architects that used 2,250 playable hours per year, 43 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. She then cited a line in the Phase 2 Subcommittee's FAQ that indicated the field would be used about 25 hours per week because, the FAQ stated, it would need to be brushed every 100 hours, or once a month.
 
"So, if we use the field 25 hours per week every week of the year, that would add up to 1,300 hours," Boyd said. "More realistically, it's going to be somewhere between 650 and 900 [hours] for when the students are available to use the field."
 
Using those numbers and assuming that a grass field is available for use about 20 percent less of the time, Boyd reran the cost per playable hour and found that grass is a less expensive option when capital and maintenance costs are taken into account.
 
"That still doesn't necessarily rule [artificial turf] out, but it helps us understand the facts that we're playing with," she said. "When we build an artificial turf field, we're actually building in three to four times the capacity that we need. Is this a good use of the school's finances?"
 
Boyd and members of the community who addressed the School Committee in the first hour also placed emphasis on the potential health risks, including contamination of water from chemicals used in artificial turf surfaces.
 
"Another concern people have talked about is PFAS chemicals, very dangerous if they're found in the water supply," she said. "One of the manufacturers supplied us with a certificate saying, ‘It's all good, we don't have any of these PFAS.' I actually called this grass manufacturer. They have done absolutely no testing to verify that their product doesn't include PFAS chemicals. They have not received any third party verification. They have not verified that their suppliers have completely checked their materials. And this company makes products that we know use PFAS chemicals.
 
"So, there is no certification that there is no PFAS included in the grass. It may very well not be there, but you can't take this certification as proof that there isn't."
 
Alison Carter, who until November served on the School Committee, told her former colleagues that maintaining high-quality grass fields at Mount Greylock is not a realistic alternative because of weather, poor drainage and the lack of an irrigation system on the campus.
 
And she suggested a different way to think about the environmental risks that opponents point to on synthetic fields.
 
"Regarding chemical exposure, our kids are exposed to a level of toxicity every day through things like furniture, rugs, car interiors, food packaging, makeup," Carter said. "I don't feel it's fair to vilify environmentally-minded artificial turf, free of the chemicals flagged with concern while overlooking the other exposure in our lives.
 
"What is the true net environmental impact of a turf field, in context and in direct comparison to a well maintained grass field? In a time when 70 percent of carbon emissions come from the oil and gas industry and nearly everything we own or do comes at some cost to the environment, we need to have an honest conversation about the impacts of a BrockFill field. I find it hard to reconcile being OK with the high environmental impact of our cars, clothes, food, coffee and lawn maintenance while vilifying something that has comparatively low environmental impact and helps our kids be more active and healthy and builds critical life skills."
 
On the other hand, Bridget Spann told the School Committee that the money it might spend on a synthetic field is better spent investing in a high quality, organically managed grass field and a track that Mount Greylock lacks despite having a track and field team that annually draws scores of student-athletes.
 
"I remain concerned that playability, to some, is the most critical factor, to the exclusion of other critical factors," Spann said. "This is like considering drivability to be the most important factor and then purchasing a Hummer to drive in Berkshire County in any weather conditions and not factoring in important considerations like its life cycle cost and environmental impact, factors that steer most of us into buying other vehicles."

Tags: MGRSD,   turf field,   

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Williamstown Employees Resign After Complaint; Board Member Leaving

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Two employees of the town resigned Monday in the wake of a complaint about employee conduct.
 
And one member of the five-person Select Board will be leaving his post a year ahead of schedule.
 
Those were the surprises to emerge from a meeting that mostly focused on the town's efforts to investigate accusations of wrongdoing in its police department and develop a plan to replace its recently retired chief.
 
Select Board Chair Jane Patton announced the employees' departure at the start of the meeting.
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