WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A divided Mount Greylock Regional School Committee on Friday voted to move forward on a track to putting an artificial turf field out to bid.
On a vote of 4-2, the committee agreed to spend the next week reviewing a year-old list of value engineering items associated with its athletic fields project and to vote as soon as next Thursday to pay its architect to do the detailed design work needed to rebid a project that already came in over budget in the fall of 2019.
After nearly four hours of a meeting that began at noon and after hearing public comments that ran 9-to-1 against making a decision on Friday, the School Committee decided to ignore its own September 2019
vote to construct a request for proposals that made Americans with Disabilities Act and Title IX compliance on Mount Greylock's existing field the project's base and allowed bidders to submit quotes for either an engineered grass field or an artificial turf field as "add alternates."
As has been the case on numerous occasions, Al Terranova and Steven Miller pushed for the committee to follow the recommendations of its Phase 2 Subcommittee, arguing that all the research needed has been completed and it was time to make a decision.
"I want to dig a hole tomorrow," Terranova said as the meeting dragged into its fourth hour. "The issue isn't money. The issue isn't pollution. … Come on, guys. It can't go on like this. Either you're for it or you're not for it.
Terranova and Miller were joined by Alison Carter and Carolyn Greene in a vote to move the process forward on digging that hole. Christina Conry and Jamie Art voted against.
After lengthy discussions of the pros and cons of moving forward with a plan that everyone agrees will increase the number of usable hours for one of the school's fields, it was clear that Greene would have the deciding vote. And when Conry, the chair, called the roll, it was clear that Greene knew that to be the case.
After Art and Conry voted against the plan and Carter voted in favor, Greene — fourth on the currently six-person committee in alphabetical order and knowing that Miller and Terranova surely would vote aye — thought out loud.
"So unfair," she said. "That makes me the swing vote. I knew this was going to happen. This is terrible."
After pausing for seven seconds, she continued.
"So, what am I committing to here? I'm committing to a process. I'm sorry, I have to think this out. A process that is going to begin with an internal review. Greene, aye."
One of the meeting's turning points came about 2 hours, 21 minutes in, when district Business Manager Joe Bergeron told the committee how much it might cost to design a new grass field — one that has the irrigation and drainage needed to provide the maximum playability possible on a natural surface.
"[Architect] Perkins Eastman had supplied on Nov. 19 of last year a document to the district that states to develop a grass field design suitable for rebidding, they had quoted the district at that point in time a $42,150 price tag for that process," Bergeron said.
"To bid grass?" Greene asked.
Moments later, Miller argued that the $42,000 would be wasted money if the committee ultimately ended up going with a synthetic surface.
"If it's possible for the committee, with all the evidence and all the studies that have been gathered and collected and read, to make a decision between artificial turf and natural grass, it would be advantageous to go forward," he said. "If the committee cannot do that, we're going to be spending more money on more studies and less [infrastructure]."
Although Greene and Art each suggested the committee could decide to put out separate RFPs that were alike in all ways except the surface on the new multisport field, no such idea went to a vote.
That would have been one way to honor the spirit of the School Committee's Sept. 26, 2019, decision to ask its Phase 2 Subcommittee to construct a bid that made Title IX and ADA compliance of existing fields the base and included either an artificial turf field or a grass field as add alternates, along with a six-lane track as an add alternate.
On Friday, it was mentioned that the Phase 2 Subcommittee was advised by an employee no longer with the district that such a construction would be impossible in a bid. But the Phase 2 Subcommittee made no such report to the School Committee, nor was it ever discussed at all in a School Committee meeting whether such a bid was possible until Art last week reminded the panel of its September 2019 decision.
Bergeron did tell the group that he had been advised by district counsel that he saw no legal reason the district could not release "competing" RFPs — one for grass and another for turf.
But neither that idea nor a suggestion by Greene that the School Committee put the Title IX and ADA work out to bid and leave the synthetic/natural field debate for another day ever came to a vote.
The only motion to make it to that stage was made by Terranova, which, after several amendments, came out as: "To move the Phase 2 Subcommittee recommendation [of summer 2019], which includes Title IX and ADA compliance and a synthetic turf field as value engineered, with Brockfill, with a track as an add alternate, into detailed design with the following steps: 1. Internal review of the value engineering list and bid documents; 2. School Committee review and approval of the value engineering decisions; 3. Detail design documents; 4. Review by the Williamstown Zoning Board of Appeals; and 5. Go out to bid."
The committee agreed to put the value engineering internal review in the hands of its Finance Subcommittee, in consultation with Bergeron and Athletic Director Lindsey von Holtz, which will make a recommendation to the full committee on Oct. 22.
Throughout the public comment portion of Friday's meeting, the School Committee was urged not to make a hasty decision, but Carter, Miller and Terranova took turns arguing the contrary.
"The question is how much money do we want to spend on different bids," Miller said. "I understand people feel that the process has been rushed. But we've been discussing this for four to five years. All the Phase 2 Subcommittee meetings have been open. These concerns have been aired. They have been addressed."
While several people, including Art, characterized the School Committee's pace
this fall as just that, rushed, the panel went into Friday's meeting with two dates looming: an April 2022 deadline for ADA and Title IX compliance, which means that work on the existing fields will have to be completed in the 2021 building season; and the Nov. 3 election, when the terms end for three of the six members not standing for re-election and Greene will be opposed in a bid to retain her seat.
Add in the unexpired term of Regina DiLego, who resigned from the committee earlier this month, and that means as many as five new members could join the seven-person panel in less than a month's time.
Terranova argued that the current six members need to resolve the synthetic turf field question to take it off the hands of their successors. Miller, like Conry one of two members assured of being on the committee this time next month, said any delay would mean requiring "a whole new group of people reading everything again."
"This is our job," Miller said.
The ADA and Title IX compliance work, which has nothing to do with whether the district builds a new field of any kind (grass or synthetic), the changes to provide equity to female athletes and individuals with disabilities were linked to the new field by the Phase 2 Subcommittee, and it was that body's recommendation that moved forward on Friday.
The district is required by law to bring its fields into compliance with both the ADA and Title IX because of the scope of the recently completed addition/renovation project at the middle/high school. The state's Architectural Access Board in Boston gave the district until spring 2022 to get that work done.
And even though Terranova and Miller argued that a vote on Friday — or next Thursday — will "get it off the plate" of the next School Committee, that is not necessarily the case. As Art noted on Friday, even if the district can get the project out to bid before Nov. 3, those bids will come back after the election and the seating of new committee members, who ultimately will have the choice to award the contract.
That likely means weeks more lobbying from advocates for and against a turf field and a continued debate in the community of tradeoffs between increased playable hours, environmental considerations and as yet unknown costs for replacement and disposal of a used artificial turf surface.
Greene had those voices in her head already.
"I like the two bid packages because then specialists in natural grass can bid on that and specialists in synthetic can bid on those" she said moments before hearing the $42,150 price tag for design work. "It's one extra bid document and another bid process. It means more work for people, but it satisfies a need that's been expressed over and over and over again. And these are our constituents. We need to listen to the community.
"I really have been trying very hard to stay open-minded, and it's been driving people who have talked to me about this crazy because I'm not committing to one or the other. And I have friends who are very passionate about synthetic turf, and I have friends who are very passionate about natural grass.
"And I would really like to be able to see any information that's been requested."
In other business on Friday:
Bergeron reported that as of June 2020, $3.7 million remains in what began as a $5 million capital gift
from Williams College. That may allay fears some expressed in the spring about the gift's value — which is tied to the value of the college's endowment — declining in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Going into Friday's meeting, the School Committee had committed to spend $3.1 million out of the gift, which left a balance of $3.7 million, Bergeron said.
• The committee voted 6-0 to commit $90,000 from the Williams gift to build a facilities storage shed on the spot where the district had been using construction trailers to house its administration while waiting for construction of a new admin building on the Mount Greylock campus. Originally, the facilities storage needs were going to be included in a $110,000 prefab building elsewhere on campus that would be shared with the school's cross country ski team as a waxing room. The administration determined that the 30-by-60 building it is constructing with that $110,000 is not large enough to accommodate both uses, Bergeron reported.
• The committee considered but did not vote on a proposal to commit to holding at least $1 million from the remainder in the Williams gift for a reserve that would appreciate over time and be available for future extraordinary maintenance needs at the middle/high school.