Grass and turf can coexist

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To the Editor:

The way we worship, the way we mourn, the way we raise our children, and the way we conduct life in general are about our beliefs and choices. After more than three years of very thoughtful discussion regarding our fields, I have come to understand that I can’t, nor do I want to, diminish people’s beliefs regarding the direction that we should take to address our athletic fields. Everyone has their belief on how school leaders should proceed. It makes little sense to try to dissuade others.

What does make sense is to clarify this debate, so that everyone has an accurate understanding of what has unfortunately become a highly politicized, and at times embarrassing, argument undertaken by folks who might fall on either side of the coin. Like many others, I have grown weary of the grass versus synthetic turf debate and of those who perpetuate this debate, because it is not an accurate portrayal of the critical issues at hand.

The overwhelming majority of people on our Island wish to have natural grass athletic fields at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS). This includes the coaching staff and administration of MVRHS. The MVRHS School Committee supports natural grass athletic fields. The Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) administration supports natural grass athletic fields.

Specifically, MVRHS and MVPS leadership want to create five healthy, playable, and safe natural grass athletic fields for all who might use them. However, MVRHS and MVPS leaders also believe that to support and maintain the health and playability of these five natural grass athletic fields over many years, and many uses, through the harsh conditions of our falls, winters, and springs, one synthetic surface field is necessary.

Some people in our school and Island communities feel that an exclusively natural grass athletic fields campus can survive and thrive in a condition necessary to support varsity-level athletic competition.

Others in our school and Island communities believe that one synthetic surface field is necessary as a part of maintaining and rehabilitating the health of natural grass athletic fields to consistently provide safe playing conditions for our children. This belief is grounded in the recommendation of Huntress Associates, Inc., an awardwinning, nationally recognized landscape architecture, planning, and engineering firm that has 25 years of experience specializing in the design and construction of both natural grass and synthetic-surface athletic fields across New England. Chris Huntress of Huntress Associates was commissioned by the MVRHS School Committee and leadership to determine a campus-wide plan to maintain safe and healthy playing fields for our children at MVRHS and the broader Island community.

Following an extensive study of the condition of our fields, as well as the usage, climate, and impact of various surfaces on safety and environment, Chris Huntress presented his assertion and recommendation that five natural grass fields can be maintained at safe and healthy conditions with the support of one synthetic surface field. The MVRHS School Committee, in its belief that this recommendation is the best approach to support the needs of our school and our students, has voted to support this approach.

To be clear, MVRHS and MVPS leadership have not made a proposal against grass. Rather, school leadership has proposed, through the determination of an expert with a deep understanding and long history in the design and construction of natural grass and synthetic surface fields, a way to provide our Island with fields that not only prioritize and highlight natural grass, but ensures that they remain healthy and durable for our high school children and the community as a whole.

Some have questioned my respect for the Island, my leadership, and legacy in the context of this debate. I am most proud of the legacy of positively influencing hundreds of children during my leadership of two wonderful Island schools. Contradictory to some folks’ beliefs, I am not dismissing legacy, children, and respect for the Island by believing strongly in the necessity of one synthetic-surface athletic field. Many children, high school children most notably, support a synthetic-surface field. While I may appear to be in opposition to the beliefs of some children, my beliefs are coherent with many of our young people at the high school. I believe the best way to support our children is in providing them with the most durable, healthy, and safe fields possible. We have at minimum that ethical responsibility and moral obligation.

I have great appreciation and admiration for the tremendous efforts of those who support the health of our athletic fields, most notably members of our MVRHS School Committee, MV@Play, and the Field Fund. Those folks are beyond reproach in their support of our schools and children. To this point, members of MV@Play and the Field Fund have approached our schools over the past three years with their desire to privately fund and donate the entirety of the planning and construction of the MVRHS track project. Because of resistance by some in the community and conditions that could not legally be met by our schools, both attempts at a project stalled. The lesson learned from these stalled efforts is that only by working together can we see this project through for the good of our children.

It is important to note this context, as it has always been the intent of the MVPS leaders to seek private funding for the construction of the track project. It is even more important to note the urgency with which this track project must be addressed. That is why we ask the blessing of our towns to allow the use of Excess and Deficiency funds to support the design work for this project. After multiple patchwork repairs, there are less than two years of usable life left of the MVRHS track.

The high school building itself will need to be addressed as well. This will take a concerted effort by all six towns and school leaders working as partners, in a unified approach to realize this vast project. But this is a separate project, to be addressed by a wholly different funding approach.

I began this letter by highlighting that all of us believe differently and in different things. Though we may have different values and different guiding principles, I have to believe that all of us share one thing in common. That is a devotion to our children. It is my great hope that we can all work together in our efforts to support them.

Richie Smith, Ed.D., assistant superintendent
Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools

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