Aquinnah residents voted at special town meeting in favor of an article allowing the high school to use $350,000 in Excess and Deficiency funds to secure construction documents for a track and synthetic infield.
The vote was 24-18, and was not without controversy, as some wanted to know if there were any other places the money could be used, while others were still concerned about the possible environmental impacts of a synthetic field.
But moderator Mike Hebert confined the scope of the discussion to the use of funds, and attempted to steer voters away from debating the issue of turf versus grass.
“I would like to make it clear before I take questions from the floor that this is not a discussion over natural grass versus turf; that has nothing to do with this warrant article,” Hebert said.
Superintendent Matt D’Andrea started off the discussion by describing what Excess and Deficiency funds mean in relation to the school’s operating budget.
The funds are left over from line items that weren’t fully expended, D’Andrea said. “It is very similar to the way towns have free cash,” he said.
D’Andrea said that Excess and Deficiency funds are usually used for unforeseen circumstances and one-time expenses. He said the main reason the school uses the money is for emergencies, or expenditures of great importance that should be immediately remediated. “Our track has failed. We were able to use some money in 2017 to resurface the track, but this is a short-term fix, because the subsurface has failed,” he said.
After the money is allocated for the designs for the track and infield, those plans will then be brought to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission for review, D’Andrea said.
D’Andrea said that one of the school’s most important jobs is to “educate kids on making good choices, on this Island, and across the nation.”
“We have tremendous challenges around the choices that students have, and encouraging them to make good and healthy choices,” he said. “Athletics are a huge piece in allowing us to do that. This vote will be in support of students and providing them with healthy choices.”
The plan for the project, after it is approved by the commission, is to raise money and have the entire development be privately funded, according to D’Andrea.
He said the $6.7 million cost of the project could also be diminished by removing the proposed field house from the plan, along with using the current bandstands as opposed to including a 1,000-seat new bandstand, currently in the plan.
Aquinnah finance committee chairman Allen Rugg said the vote would have no impact on the town’s budget.
“With the challenges down the road in education in the high school, developing a precedent of substantial private funding is very, very encouraging,” Rugg said.
Adrian Higgins asked what the school would do if the MVC denies the project. “If the commission denies, then you just have to modify the plan and spend more money? It seems like $350,000 is a lot of money, and that number could go up,” Higgins said.
D’Andrea said, even with revisions, the figure on the warrant article should be enough to cover costs.
Higgins asked why the school is prioritizing this project over other large capital projects like the renovation of the high school educational campus.
“When you look at all the places this money needs to go, what puts this front and center versus something else?” Higgins asked. “I don’t want to say this isn’t important, but if the school is falling down, who cares if you have a $6 million playing field?”
The high school does need a major building renovation, but D’Andrea said that process is being halted because it did not pass at Oak Bluffs town meeting, and needs to pass all six towns.
“That project is going to take, at best, 5 to 7 years. That is a long road. This track will have failed long before that,” D’Andrea said. “We really need to pay attention to these fields, invest in them, and provide students with a higher level of playing fields.”
Maureen Williams asked what the estimated lifespan of the track is.
D’Andrea said the track would last approximately 20 years, but it would depend on the amount of usage from high school and elementary school track programs.
“The goal is a minimum of 20 years, but it could last potentially much longer,” D’Andrea said. “One thing we have not done well is maintain. We need to come up with a comprehensive maintenance plan so that when we do these capital projects, we can protect these investments.”
Noli Taylor reiterated the question of why the project is getting “first dibs” ahead of the renovation project.
“Both projects are very important. To say one has a priority over the other, I don’t know, they both are high priorities for the school,” D’Andrea said.