WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Plans to build an artificial turf field at Mount Greylock Regional School may be sidetracked by a global pandemic that has dealt a serious blow to the funding source eyed for the project.
Last week at a meeting of the School Committee's Finance Subcommittee, Superintendent Kimberley Grady reported that officials from Williams College had contacted the district to check in about what commitments the district already has made for spending from the college's endowment.
"I think the School Committee needs to have a frank conversation about what the changes to the economic landscape mean to future capital projects or ideas about how to spend the [Williams College] gift," subcommittee Chair Jamie Art said. "Honestly, we're not going to know for some time what the impact of the downturn in the markets and economic projections mean for what the value of that money is now."
And it is not the only way the COVID-19 pandemic could impact finances for the preK-12 district. Grady at the same subcommittee meeting said state officials were asking districts to "run scenarios" to see how they could adjust to reduced funding because of the economic impacts of the pandemic.
"We should have a conversation about what would make sense financially for the district to start planning how we can meet the needs of students in a cost-effective way," Grady said.
"When we're being asked to look at our budget to potentially make reductions of what we've approved for FY21 … I would think capital investments would fall under the global conversation."
The subcommittee agreed that conversation should begin at the School Committee's May 14 meeting.
One of the big impacts to consider: the loss of value of investments like those in Williams College's endowment.
That endowment is the "home" of the $5 million capital gift the college made to the middle-high school at the outset of its recent building project. The $5 million pledged in early 2016 has been appreciating as part of the college's reputed $2 billion endowment, and the district already has spent money from the gift: for rental of the construction trailers that have housed the school district administration; for construction of a multipurpose building
to permanently house the administration as well storage and public restrooms for the school's athletic fields; and design work for the renovation of the athletic fields.
All those costs were beyond the scope of funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which is why they were left out of the $64 million addition/renovation project and funded from the private gift.
That gift also was thought to have enough money to pay for the field improvements themselves — even if the School Committee ultimately decided to take the step of installing an artificial turf field that could cost more than $1 million
As recently as Feb. 13, Art reported to the School Committee that the gift would have about $3.66 million after the multipurpose building was paid for. Setting aside $1.5 million that the School Committee long has planned to leave in the gift to address future capital needs (like roof replacement), that left $2.16 million for fields — including a possible turf project and the investments the district needs to make to bring its facilities into compliance with Title IX and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
That was Feb. 13.
On March 21, USA Today reported the Dow Jones Industrial Average had lost 35 percent of its mid-February value, "wiping out years of growth in only about a month's time." The publication "Business Insider" reported on March 12, about a month after Art's report, that the stock market had lost $11.5 trillion in value.
"From a financial perspective, with the financial landscape of the world right now, that gift — all moneys — took a hit," Grady noted at the May 6 subcommittee meeting.
Of course, the School Committee was not ready to pull the trigger on an artificial turf field project even before COVID-19 became the dominant subject in all phases of American life — including finances.
The question of whether to put an artificial field on the Cold Spring Road campus was hotly debated throughout 2019, and was the topic of an extended discussion during the School Committee's first meetings of January 2020.
♦ On Jan. 2, the School Committee tasked then chair Dan Caplinger with organizing a public discussion to gather more community input on
the artificial turf question.
♦ On Jan. 9, the School Committee: reviewed a report from a member of the community that argued a turf field would be more cost effective than relying on grass fields; heard from its field project, or Phase II subcommittee, that it wants to change the infill for the proposed turf field from "crumb rubber" to Brockfill, a more expensive alternative that claims to be non-toxic and organic; and had a motion from member Steven Miller, a proponent of the turf field, that the committee decide by Jan. 23 whether it would build an artificial turf field. Miller ended up withdrawing his motion, but not until after Caplinger indicated there was no way he could complete the kind of fact-finding the committee asked for just a week before in time for a Jan. 23 vote and Regina DiLego said such a quick vote would be "disingenuous" given the Jan. 2 discussion.
♦ On Jan. 29, Miller requested that the committee meet "next week to have a vote," noting that the School Committee members had "been discussing this for years, have responded to many concerns from community members … [and while it] will not necessarily agree, [it has] an obligation to make a decision and move forward." Caplinger asked that committee remembers submit their requests for special meetings and agenda items in writing, and DiLego said she had asked Art, as chair of the Finance Subcommittee, to have that group make a recommendation about the source of funds "for meeting Title IX compliance, ADA compliance and feel restoration or construction."
♦ On Feb. 13, Art reported that the Williams College gift would stand about about $3.6 million after the multipurpose building [Phase I] was paid for.
♦ On Feb. 21, Caplinger, who served on the Phase II subcommittee, resigned from the School Committee.
♦ On Feb. 27, the committee accepted Caplinger's letter of resignation and held a workshop on its fiscal year 2021 budget.
♦ On March 5, the School Committee presented the FY21 budget
to the public.
♦ On March 15, Gov. Charlie Baker announced a three-week closure of schools across the commonwealth, an order that later was extended to close all school buildings through the end of the academic year.
The full Mount Greylock School Committee, which has been meeting by video conference since March 19, has not broached the artificial turf field question since the Feb. 13 meeting, when it discussed the pre-COVID value of the Williams College gift. Other topics, including the delay in naming Caplinger's replacement and a protracted negotiation with the teachers union on a memorandum of agreement for starting remote learning in the district, have dominated the committee's time.
Last week's Finance Subcommittee meeting was the first time in a while the fields question has come up in a public session, and it was not an encouraging conversation for those who would see the artificial turf field get built.
"I'm uncomfortable committing to a large capital project until we know what the value of the gift is," Art said last Wednesday. "We've already committed to the multipurpose building. If you look at the decline of the market, there should be plenty of cushion for that.
"But until we have a better sense of what's available, it seems foolish to me to continue with that [field] project for now. The better course is to put that on hold. That's just my personal opinion."
"I agree," said DiLego.
"I'm in the same space," said Christina Conry, the chair of the School Committee and third member of the Finance Subcommittee.
Grady told the subcommittee she asked Mount Greylock's architect at Perkins Eastman about applying to the commonwealth's Architectural Access Board for an extension on the deadline to bring the middle-high school fields into compliance with Title IX and the ADA. Currently, that work has to be completed by April 2022.
"If we don't get the [extension], we have to at least address [compliance] under our existing budget," Grady said.
"But I want the School Committee to know it's not just the field. It's the overall budget that has to be looked at [in light of the recession]."