The latest chapter of the grass versus synthetic turf debate for Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School appears to be over now, with four out of the Island’s six towns signing off on the use of $350,000 in Excess and Deficiency funds to pay for the design of a new track and field. On Tuesday, West Tisbury became the fourth and deciding town to support the plan.
Aquinnah will still vote on the issue May 14, in what has been a somewhat ugly debate playing out at public meetings, in Letters to the Editor, and on social media.
Superintendent Matt D’Andrea acknowledged the fact that members of the Field Fund, a group lobbying for the use of only grass playing fields, has been sending emails to voters stating their position, but he said that now the project is finally moving forward. “We are keeping our eye on the final project. We tried to work with a couple groups, the Field Fund being one of them. I think what I learned from that experience is that we need to take the bull by the horns and get this thing done by ourselves,” D’Andrea said. “We welcome anyone who wants to help us with this project to reach out. It feels great to have gotten to this point, but there is still a lot of work to be done.”
Most folks on-Island agree that the MVRHS desperately requires new athletic fields to accommodate the needs of student athletes. But there are disparate opinions on whether to follow many off-Island schools in using synthetic turf for the athletic campus, or to stick with all natural grass fields.
At a February school committee public session, the committee voted 5-4 to move forward with phase one of the plan proposed by consultant Chris Huntress, to construct one synthetic turf field inside a resurfaced track, along with five grass athletic fields.
The school planned on using $350,000 in Excess and Deficiency funds, which is similar to a town’s free cash, to procure the construction documents.
That decision was overturned after D’Andrea learned from the school’s attorney that their past practice of voting to use Excess and Deficiency monies without a majority consensus from Island towns was unlawful.
The school then voted to allow the towns to make the decision on whether to use the funds. That added step reignited the debate that will ultimately be decided by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.
Some members of the community stress that a project of this magnitude should be considered a capital expenditure and should fall within the school’s budget, especially when considering the massive renovation that the school is facing with the rest of its facilities.
Rebekah Thomson of the Field Fund said that with all towns facing major expenditures, it is important for taxpayers to prioritize. She asked people to “try and understand that this is the launch of an extensive, phased capital project.”
But athletic director at the high school Mark McCarthy said Excess and Deficiency funds are pre-existing monies that are meant to be used on projects like this.
“This decision to use E and D is financially responsible because the money is already there. It is already available for us to use,” McCarthy said.
He also mentioned that the school is trying to mitigate costs to taxpayers by finding private parties to fund the construction and maintenance of the new athletic campus. “Our intent is to privately fund this project. We can’t do that unless we have construction documents to go off of,” McCarthy said.
But Thomson said it’s not enough to say the project will be privately funded without first having earmarked the money. “It is not enough to launch a major capital project on a hope that the school will find private investors for this initiative,” Thomson said. “Until that money is guaranteed, the idea that this will not be costly to taxpayers is not acceptable.”
McCarthy said the Field Fund has been emailing members of the public encouraging them to vote against the use of Excess and Deficiency funds, and spreading information that is misleading. “They are driven by emotion more than anything. All they know is that they don’t want plastic, and are trying to use scare tactics to get this thing blocked,” McCarthy said.
D’Andrea declined to comment.
For Thomson, entering into conversation with the public is something she said is necessary to educate people. “We want to maintain conversation with people, and we encourage anyone with questions to reach out to us. We can even walk the fields with you,” Thomson said.
Another, more uncertain aspect of the turf versus grass question is the long-term maintenance costs associated with both options.
Thomson insists that the long-term upkeep of grass fields would be preferable to the cost of replacing a worn-down plastic carpet at the end of its useful life.
She said grass fields require regular mowing, fertilizer, and aeration to remain healthy, while replacing a synthetic carpet would be much more costly, and would be a “major step backward in the promotion of sustainability here on Martha’s Vineyard.”
McCarthy said the useful life of the carpet is 12 years, and a recycling factory for synthetic turf is being built in Pennsylvania. “We put a chain of custody on the project, guaranteeing that after the turf has reached its useful life, it will be recycled,” he said.
And McCarthy suggested there is an inherent risk factor in planting all grass fields without the support of one synthetic field. “There is a major risk involved with if those grass fields fail,” McCarthy said. “What if we can’t keep up with the maintenance? That would be a $4 million mistake.”
But Thomson said the fields deserve all the care and effort necessary to maintain a quality sports environment for students. “We need to do what is necessary for the kids,” Thomson said. “These grass fields are resilient. They can endure all sorts of weather and can bounce back.”