The sports and recreation fields within the South Orange and Maplewood communities neither reflect the vitality of our sports programs nor do justice to the passions of our student athletes. Years of underfunded maintenance married with overuse and outright neglect means our fields fail to serve the needs of our community. We, however, have a truly rare opportunity through the school bond currently up for a vote to reimagine two of the community’s athletic facilities – Ritzer and Underhill fields – to benefit every Columbia High School student taking PE, every band member, every athlete, and every community member.
For the past year, the MAPSO Recreation Fields Task Force gathered support and advanced plans to ensure both Underhill upgrades and Ritzer construction were included in the long-range facilities plan recently advanced by the Board of Education, Board of School Estimate, Essex County and the New Jersey Department of Education. Members of the Task Force presented our findings to the BOE on three separate occasions in the last 5 months to ensure all current sitting BOE members were properly briefed on our work and the support in the community for synthetic surfaces at Underhill and Ritzer.
During the June 3rd SOMSD BOE meeting, a community member shared late breaking concerns (we would say misconceptions) about the use of synthetic surfaces cited in the Task Force’s plan. It was extremely disappointing to see sitting BOE members fail to acknowledge any recollection of the Task Force’s advocacy despite the broad community support behind it – and despite the BOE’s own prior consideration and acceptance of synthetic field surfaces. In December of 2018, the BOE voted to approve and submitted applications, with costs, to both update Underhill and build out Ritzer with synthetic surfaces.The actions of the BOE are in stark contrast to the Board of School Estimate resolution (from members of the South Orange Board of Trustees and the Maplewood Township Committee) who publicly and passionately consider both Underhill and Ritzer “classroom space,” and who demanded synthetic surfaces for Underhill and Ritzer be included in the Long-Range Facilities Plan that forms the basis for the bonding requests already reviewed by the BOE, Essex County and the NJ DOE.
This community elects BOE members to advocate for our children across the educational spectrum. That includes academics, fine arts and athletics. We continually see this current BOE’s lack of personal equity with sports impact their decision making. It’s time they properly represent the 6,000+ families in this community who feel sports are vital to their children’s development and provide the resources they need to succeed.
The BOE’s actions seem to be driven by a single statement, presented months after discussion and a vote to finalize the projects in the bonding plan sent to the NJ DOE. This statement contains what the task force considers outdated and refuted ‘information’ related to the reimagining of the Underhill and Ritzer facilities. It has taken the district over a decade to address ailing infrastructure. The BOE’s most recent shift in perspective raises concerns about whether they are committed to fulfilling our District’s core mission, which includes creating opportunities for all students to learn in both indoor and outdoor classrooms.
While not entirely relevant to the situation at hand, we should note the counterargument to synthetic fields rests primarily on opposition to crumb rubber, which has been shown to be safe in more than 90 studies, peer-reviewed academic analyses and government reports. Additional reports of its safety were published by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, the FIFA Medical Committee, and the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation, to name but a few of the many organizations sharing supporting views.
Regardless, the Task Force, in full agreement and recognition of our community’s support for green decision making, supports and champions organic design options that bypass crumb rubber entirely. Available designs include organic materials such as clinoptilolite zeolite (a non-toxic mineral) or coated sand infill — both coupled with a shock pad for enhanced safety and improved playability. These options mitigate both the heat effects of synthetic turf (as they are light-colored and porous) and concerns about the possibility of increased concussion-related injury. They also absorb and hold water, facilitating drainage and cooling of the field through subsequent evaporation.
The benefits of synthetic playing fields are numerous, and include greater equity among users, year-round playability, playability in bad weather, decreased maintenance, and no pesticides. They also have a low cost to use threshold: factoring use versus cost for each type of field reveals a savings difference of almost $300 per playing hour ($348/hour for grass compared to $53/hour for synthetic). The increased availability and lower maintenance costs directly translate into a whole lot more band practices, physical education classes, youth league games, and other activities for the health and benefit of our students.
Simply put, upgrading the synthetic surface at Underhill and installing synthetic turf as a multi-activity space at Ritzer is the best long-term option for students, for band, for sport, and for South Orange-Maplewood.
We call on the BOE to support our students and approve the Underhill and Ritzer projects, including installation of synthetic playing surfaces. We also ask that the BOE do its research on the advocacy of the Fields Task Force to date, as well as get informed on the updated facts around synthetic surfaces. As always, we welcome the opportunity to answer any additional questions or provide any further guidance to the BOE.
MAPSO Recreation Fields Task Force