We supported the concept of a combination of synthetic turf and natural grass fields in 2017. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. School officials, with the help of MV@Play, made the case that the natural grass fields at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School could not adequately be allowed to go unused enough to keep the natural grass fields in suitable shape.
There is still a very real need to fix the badly worn fields of MVRHS. Student athletes deserve better fields to host their games on, and, of course, injury is a concern when fields are in such poor condition.
Some things have changed in the four years since we supported the project to include a synthetic turf field, and with this new information, we’ve changed our position.
The Island has become increasingly conscious of the environmental consequences of plastics. We are one of the first places to ban plastic bottles in some towns, and this movement has come from some of the Island’s youth. The kids at Plastic Free MV have convinced the three up-Island towns to support the plastic bottle ban, and they have plans to bring the issue before down-Island town meetings, as well. It’s counterintuitive to support this plastic bottle ban and then invite a massive, plastic field into the middle of our landscape.
School officials and their consultant have failed to give assurances that the field will be recycled when its useful life, estimated at about 10 to 15 years, is over. Last year when school officials submitted the project to the Oak Bluffs planning board, chairman Ewell Hopkins raised the issue of recycling. At the time, advocates said the field materials could be recycled, but that has proven to be speculative. There is no such facility in the U.S. at this time. And while contractors would be required to put $50,000 into escrow to cover removal of the field, money won’t solve the issue of contributing to the detrimental effects plastic has on the environment if there’s still no place to recycle the materials. The amount of methane gas that will be released by the synthetic turf has also been raised as an environmental concern.
Transparency has also been lacking. Finance committees on the Island have asked for and been rebuked in their efforts to get an understanding of how much it will cost to maintain the synthetic field. At a recent meeting, school officials said it would be part of the operational budget. But it’s a fair question to ask if this field will cost more than maintaining grass fields, which, obviously, the high school has had a hard time doing. And how can anyone make this type of a decision without this basic information? It would seem easy enough for school officials to obtain from projects off-Island, and yet their reluctance to provide this basic information raises questions about why they’re not providing it. Any business that was pitched a project without providing maintenance information wouldn’t even consider it.
As for the private donors who remain anonymous, we find that questionable. If this is a worthy project, it’s something that school officials should be able to sell to taxpayers and the member towns should fund out of their obligation to the public schools. Instead, school officials came across as dismissive and defensive when they were asked about the private funding. Superintendent Matt D’Andrea lashed out at West Tisbury finance committee member Doug Ruskin when he asked how money approved at a town meeting for construction documents had expanded into a complex including bleachers and lights. It was not a good moment for the superintendent as he engaged in whataboutism by pointing out a vague town meeting article concerning transfer station repairs. That’s hardly the way for the superintendent to sell this project. Ruskin has said that he’s not against the need for new fields, he just has environmental and financial concerns about the synthetic field that have not been adequately answered.
We also find use of the Dover Amendment, a state law that allows schools and educational facilities to bypass zoning if education is the primary purpose of the facility, to be a disingenuous use of that statute. Passing off a sports complex as an educational element is a stretch. Sports are an important complement to education, but are in no way the primary use of the property. This is becoming a widely used tactic by schools across the state to avoid pushback on controversial projects typically involving sports complexes. MVRHS school officials should be looking for buy-in from a majority of Island leaders by providing as much information as possible and working with abutters to ease their concerns. They’ll never get everyone to agree, but they need to work to win support.
Finally, regardless of your position on the field project, it would serve everyone well to turn down the rhetoric a notch. If the MVC approves the synthetic field, it won’t be the end of the Island as we know it. If they reject the field proposal, it won’t be the end of school sports on the Island. The passion surrounding this project is partially to blame for how we’ve gotten to the point of last Thursday’s intolerable Zoom bombing.
We’d like to see both sides come together with the same goals — improve the fields using natural turf. Like the best sports teams, teamwork is a key component to their success. Let’s show some on this project by gathering as much information as we can and sharing it openly.