The long and winding two-year road to undertake massive improvements to the school district’s crumbling infrastructure crossed another hurdle last night as the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education voted 9-0 on June 13 to send the now $160M+ Long Range Facilities Plan to the Board of School Estimate. The BSE will vote on levying taxes to pay for bonds for the plan on July 10.
The BOE approved Resolution 3882AS, “Resolution of the Board of Education of South Orange and Maplewood … determining to undertake certain capital projects and the necessity to raise money for such capital projects in accordance with N.J.S.A. 18A:22-27.” (See pp. 45-47 of the attached resolution below.)
The approved plan included the addition of air conditioning to all schools as well as artificial turf improvements for Ritzer and Underhill fields. While Board member Johanna Wright joined her colleagues in voting for the bond, her disapproval of the turf fields allocation was noted.
“We have been working on this for two years now and we are finally coming to the close,” said BOE President Annemarie Maini in her opening President’s report. “The $93 in the plan is to address the critically urgent repair and replacement work of the $217M of needed repairs and replacements originally identified in the beginning of this process.”
“This means that over the next five years we have a plan of over $125M of additional repairs that we will have to manage and plan for to continue to catch up to repair work that has been kicked down the road,” continued Maini. “The additional $50+M is for the construction of the additions on each elementary school. The schematics provided to the state department of education are just representations of square footage using the state formulas. With the state approval and our approval this evening and the board of school estimate approval in July, the administration, architects and building leaders will work together to develop a comprehensive plan for their buildings. That will also include community feedback sessions. We have the authority to build within the square footage, we can also build less, but we cannot build more without going back to the state for approval. The architects will explain that in more detail during the presentation. This work will all come before the board for discuss and approval. This is just the beginning of the work.”
Maini also noted that the “plan also includes the superintendent’s recommendation to include the three projects that the community identified in spring of 2018 when over 1,000 people participated in the discussions: air conditioning, replacing the Underhill turf and addressing the need for turf on Ritzer. These three projects were supported by the Board of School Estimate and today the superintendent and administration are recommending them as well.” The three projects were projected to add approximately another $20M to the bond.
Indeed, the late-breaking controversy over turf fields almost overshadowed the remarkable step that the BOE was taking to repair the school district’s aging and neglected infrastructure as well as construct new additions to elementary schools.
After the vote was taken after 11:45 p.m., Board member and former BOE President Elizabeth Baker — who was at the helm of the BOE when the process began — noted the district had never done such a massive districtwide facilities and bonding plan before in its history.
The bond next goes to the Board of School Estimate — a special governing body made up of members of the Maplewood Township Committee, South Orange Board of Trustees and the Board of Education.
The vote came after more than two dozen community members made impassioned pleas both for and against allocating funds to replace artificial turf on Underhill Field and add artificial turf as part of improvements to Ritzer Field, framing it alternately as a benefit for numerous athletic programs throughout the school district and a solution rife with health and environmental concerns.
More than a dozen parents, former township officials, educators, coaches and student athletes first spoke in favor of updating the synthetic turf at Underhill Field, as well as replacing the grass at Ritzer Field, to provide more usable fields that wouldn’t flood or require closing to allow grass to take root.
Later, several students, parents and one vocal opponent of artificial turf made their case before the Board of Education.
Bill Squires, a one-time Columbia High School athlete who served in the Navy and later went to work for the Yankees, said that synthetic turf was safer than poorly maintained grass fields throughout South Orange and Maplewood.
“I do believe it’ll outperform,” he said, adding that turf was less likely to cause injury to athletes.
Squires also disputed the argument that the turf would pollute the environment.
“It won’t be going to landfill,” he said. “It will be taken apart, refurbished, or chewed up and used in another place.”
Squires, like many other supporters of synthetic turf, said that heavy rains often flooded athletic fields, leading to the cancelation of regular practice sessions.
“I really feel for the athletic director that has to schedule activities on natural grass,” he added.
“The fields are in terrible condition,” said Beth Daugherty, a former BOE president and member from 2007 to 2016 who also served as liaison to the neighborhood recreation advisory committee.
Daugherty said it was rare to see the Board of School Estimate, which has to approve bond issues before they can be enacted, “actually add something” to the capital spending plan. “Don’t take lightly the Board of School Estimate’s pre-approval.”
Brian Callahan, a past president and current board member of the Cougar Soccer Club, said the lack of upgraded playing surfaces could result in hazardous conditions for athletes.
Bryan Uniker, who founded a SOMA flag football league, said that enthusiasm for sports in the two communities was strong. “More than 400 players will take the field next September,” he said, urging the BOE to approve the plan to returf both fields.
Henry Sands, president of the Cougar Soccer Club and a 19-year Maplewood resident, said that the fields are largely unusable to play on due to weather conditions.
“We probably canceled 40 percent of our games last fall,” he said. “Forty percent is two days of the week that we’re not playing.”
Several other coaches and parents said that fields — which were riddled with uneven grass-and-weed surfaces and holes, while also sporting compacted dirt and, in rainy conditions, muddy areas. Artificial grass would also allow year-round use of the fields, several people said.
Yet there was plenty of resistance against turfing over the grass at Ritzer Field.
Jane Conrad, a former director of programming at the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy, reiterated many of the points she made in an op-ed about making fields sustainable.
“Climate change is upon us. What we really need to do is to get better in understanding the natural systems around us and to do better in taking care of them before it’s too late,” she said, asking that the district “help students understand and do their part to manage living, natural grass fields and the soil that sustains them.”
Such an effort would help prepare students to understand the world that awaits them, Conrad said.
“We’re going to have to build more resilient parks. We’re going to have to learn how complex, natural systems function and interact so we can observe changes in them in years to come, and understand which interventions will help and which will not,” she said
Maisie Conrad-Poor, a senior at Columbia, also cited climate change in her remarks.
“A synthetic field lasts 10 years, and in that time, it will have generated 72.6 times the CO2 of a grass field,” she said. Reversing those effects would require planting 1,861 trees, “and that doesn’t even cover the carbon cost of extracting, manufacturing, shipping and disposing of what is essentially a 500,000-pound petroleum product.”
“Grass isn’t just something you walk on. It’s part of a complex ecosystem,” she added. “Grass cools the environment, produces oxygen, removes [carbon dioxide].”
William Braithe noted that the synthetic turf would cost $5 million and have a lifespan of 10 years.
“It’s not higher math to understand that translates to $500,000 a year,” he said, adding that he understood the difference between a capital budget and operational expenses.
Yet spending $500,000 a year to maintain grass fields could eliminate “all of the hypothetical horrors,” he said.
CHS Student Council Vice President Joseph Holdom challenged the argument that synthetic turf is safer than grass. “Apparently, a majority of NFL players do prefer to play grass fields vs. turf, and specifically 83 percent of NFL players do say that they do feel safer on grass fields as compared to dirt fields.”
Holdom also said that physical education isn’t the only use for the township’s fields.
“We’ve got multiple clubs here that do enjoy having a grass field — for example, the gardening club,” he said.
The BSE still has the power to sever the turf fields from the bond; however, as Maini noted in her June 13 President’s report, the Board of School Estimate has supported the turf projects, as has the the superintendent and school district administration.
The BOE and the community will continue to have input into the facilities plan as it moves forward. Maini told Village Green, “The BOE will now vote on each of the detailed plans for the individual projects. …The central office, architects and building leaders will identify the best plan with community input, and then will bring that to the board for approval (through a vote).”
As Maini noted in her report at the June 13 meeting, “This is a big moment in our community to approve plans to begin to fix our schools and create the facilities that our fabulous students and staff deserve. I look forward to this work with my colleagues.”