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Mount Greylock School Committee Advances Synthetic Turf Field Project

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A deeply divided Mount Greylock Regional School Committee decided Tuesday night to move forward with a project to address deficiencies in the playing fields at the middle/high school that includes an artificial turf multi-sport field.
 
On a vote of 4-3, the committee decided to pay architect Perkins Eastman $44,000 to develop design documents that will allow the district to put the project out to bid this winter with the possibility of having a synthetic turf field in place as early as fall 2021.
 
The vote does not commit the district to actually accept bids when they come back, but it almost certainly ensures that the district will issue a request for proposal for the project, which already went out to bid once but stalled when submissions were returned well over budget.
 
"I feel like if we move forward with Perkins Eastman, that's a pricey contract," Julia Bowen said during a protracted debate toward the end of a 4 1/2-hour meeting. "I feel like we're in it [if we vote yes]. … Obviously, we don't have to take a bid that's way out of budget, but it is a big step."
 
Bowen, who earlier in the meeting indicated she did not favor building a synthetic field without a comprehensive plan to address all the playing fields on the Mount Greylock campus, ultimately joined the majority to order the design documents.
 
Curtis Elfenbein, Carolyn Greene and Steven Miller joined her in voting yes. Christina Conry, Jose Constantine and Michelle Johnson voted not to accept the $44,000 bid.
 
The School Committee also agreed that the bid documents this time around should be bid differently, with an outdoor track added to the base bid of the project rather than being included as an "add/alternate." If the RFP ultimately goes out in that form, the district would be committing to building a track if it accepts any bid to do the rest of the field work.
 
In a separate vote Tuesday, the School Committee voted 6-0-1 to commit to setting aside $1 million for a "building renewal fund" from the approximately $3.6 million remaining from a $5 million capital gift from Williams College.
 
When the committee members first expressed their opinions on the issue of ordering the bid documents, it appeared that both Bowen and Elfenbein would be "no" votes.
 
"I personally struggle to understand how it fits into a broader plan, a strategic plan for athletics over time with declining enrollment," Bowen said. "It's 9 o'clock in this [6 p.m.] meeting, and we've had important conversations and seen a tremendous amount of work the district has to do around all the pandemic supports -- big questions the School Committee will need to focus on.
 
"Continuing a conversation about turf feels like it could continue to take a lot of our time. I don't want to spend so much time on this issue."
 
Elfenbein agreed with that sentiment, at first.
 
"To be investing this much in that facility when there are more unknowns than knowns in terms of what's coming down the pipeline in the next two to five years feels crazy," he said. "We do have to make it compliant [with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title IX]. I know that. We do have address field conditions because they're dangerous.
 
"But in terms of moving forward with the plan as is, I have a hard time wrapping my head around it."
 
At various points, members of the committee suggested divorcing the Title IX and ADA compliance work from the artificial turf field. The district has a hard deadline of April 2022 to bring the fields into compliance with federal law; its Phase 2 Subcommittee developed a plan that links the compliance work to the synthetic turf field.
 
As Tuesday's conversation developed, a couple of points were made that directly addressed some of the points raised by Bowen.
 
Steven Miller, who served on the Phase 2 Subcommittee, pointed out that a synthetic turf field is part of a broader approach to all the playing fields at the school by cutting down on overuse of the existing natural grass fields.
 
Greene said the plan to build a turf field was the result of the kind of strategic planning Bowen argued for.
 
"We heard from folks on the Phase 2 Subcommittee," Greene said. "Part of the first process in 2017 was that the athletic infrastructure was strategically discussed. That's how we got to this point.
 
"I'd hate to go through a whole other strategic planning process and end up exactly here again. In two years, you'll have had two years without being able to relieve existing fields, without having another field for the students and physical education classes and the community to use.
 
"That work has been done." 
 
Superintendent Jason McCandless, who declined to express an opinion one way or another on the artificial turf field, did attempt to allay any concern that the fields question itself was less significant than other issues on the committee's plate.
 
"What the right answer is, I don't know," McCandless said. "The insistence that we do this and do it right and do it in a way that works for kids 10 years from now and 20 years from now is really important.
 
"We are going to be spending hours and hours and hours doing all kinds of important work. We're going to do instructional work and social/emotional learning work and budgetary work no matter what else we're dealing with. This question is worth the time we're devoting to it. I don't have any great answers, but this work is important, and we need to stick with it."
 
Johnson, who ultimately voted against the outlay for bid documents, suggested the move to include the track as part of the broader project and move it out of add/alternate status.
 
"I'm a little uncomfortable prioritizing soccer and lacrosse over track," she said.
 
Miller, one of the strongest voices on the committee in favor of the Phase 2 Subcommittee plan over the last year, enthusiastically agreed that the track should be included as part of the base project.
 
Both Elfenbein and Bowen noted they were not against a synthetic field on principle.
 
"I'm not opposed to turf," she said. "If the issue is playability, if that's what we're trying to solve for, I get that turf is the answer. I also think if we haven't solved for all the other fields on the campus, I have a hard time understanding why we'd add another one."
 
The committee considered adding an irrigation for the existing grass fields to the project to be designed by Perkins Eastman, but ultimately it decided to tackle that issue at another time.
 
As for the renewal fund, it has long been an ask of town officials in both Lanesborough and Williamstown. For months, the number the School Committee used to talk about to fund extraordinary building maintenance (flooring, roof, windows) was $1.5 million.
 
But after deciding to go forward ordering the bid documents for the fields project on Tuesday, the committee settled on $1 million, knowing that whatever money is put aside will appreciate in value over time as part of the Williams College endowment.
 
Tuesday's non-binding vote to "reserve" $1 million from the current $3.6 million value of the capital gift does not set that figure in stone but instead gives the committee a guardrail to consider when bids ultimately come back on the project.
 
"I think I started at $1.5 [million]," Johnson said. "That's my preference. However, I wouldn't want to sacrifice the track for the point-five [million]. … I'm comfortable with a million, but no less than that."
 
Miller, who moved the $1 million figure, agreed that the actual figure in the building renewal fund could be increased if bids on the fields project come in below $2.6 million. School Committee members have been advised that the bidding environment should be highly competitive given the relative scarcity of similar projects during the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
The lone abstention on the vote to set aside $1 million came from Jose Constantine, who did not disagree with the idea of setting aside money for future needs but said he needed more information before endorsing a specific figure, saying that an amount decided in a vacuum felt "arbitrary."

Tags: playing fields,   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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