After hearing, board seeks more info on artificial turf proposal

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BRATTLEBORO — School board members are not yet ready to say yes to an artificial turf field at the high school.

"We decided we needed more complete information on environmental impacts, access equity, cost, and student health implications," Windham Southeast School District board member David Schoales said in an email. "We delegated the research responsibilities to the appropriate board committees and will report back at the Nov. 6 meeting."

The decision came Wednesday night after proponents and opponents of the project voiced their opinions in a discussion held in a public hearing format during the board meeting at Dummerston Elementary School. Agenda items to advertise a request seeking bidders qualified to do the work and approve a document seeking proposals were skipped over after board members indicated they were not ready to vote on them.

Two students from Brattleboro Union High School showed how views in the community range on replacing the grass at Natowich Field with artificial turf.

"I think, as of right now, this is like the best option BUHS has for improving our field space and for helping our student athletes to gain the space and the correct facilities they need," said Gus Williams, senior captain of the boys soccer and lacrosse teams.

Amelia Glickman, a junior and member of the girls varsity soccer and lacrosse teams, worries about safety of student athletes and the environmental impact. She originally supported the project but changed her mind.

"I'm also here to represent the student environmental group; we met this afternoon to discuss the turf field and everybody was vehemently opposed," she said.

Not every student athlete wants artificial turf, Glickman told the board.

"I had a season a while back where I was at risk of infection, where I played on a turf field with an open injury and then had to get antibiotics, where I otherwise wouldn't," she said.

Williams said the project began with an engineer firm conducting a feasibility study in 2002.

"Seventeen years later, we've taken small steps," he said, noting that a drainage system was installed with the project in mind and a lighting system has been added. "This is not out of the blue."

Tim Maciel of Brattleboro said synthetic turf would be much more expensive. He noted there would be costs for installation and disposal in eight to 10 years when a replacement is anticipated to be needed. He said the Windham Solid Waste Management District could provide compost to help with vegetation to resurface the field with grass.

Marilyn Chiarello of Brattleboro said a report came out last week saying polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS have been found in artificial turf.

"That will migrate into our water system and ultimately the Connecticut River," she said.

According to The Intercept, the chemicals have been associated with health problems including cancer. The article says: "In one set of tests, the PFAS chemicals were detected in the plastic backing of two samples of the turf. In another, in which the 'blades' of the artificial grass were analyzed, scientists measured significant levels of fluorine, which is seen as an indication of the presence of the chemicals."

In a mass email provided to the Reformer, Williams shared studies from 2015. The Connecticut Department of Public Health looked at five fields in its state and found "no scientific support for a finding of elevated cancer risk from inhalation or ingestion of chemicals derived from recycled tires used on artificial turf fields." An evaluation from the Massachusetts Bureau of Environmental Health says that "scientific literature continues to suggest that exposure opportunities to artificial turf fields are not generally expected to result in health effects."

Dick DeGray, former member of the Brattleboro Select Board and high school board, said he is "more concerned about process and lack thereof."

"This shouldn't be about us versus them," he said. "This is about having all the information."

DeGray urged the board to look into how much money is being spent now on maintaining the field and how important it is to have about two weeks of additional time on a synthetic field.

George Carvill of West Brattleboro suggested bringing the project to voters in the spring. He recalled the vote to borrow up to $750,000 to resurface the field coming up in June during "that very confusing time" less than a month before the high school district merged with the Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney town school districts.

Some voters have questioned the legality of not proceeding with the desires of the dissolved high school board and voters.

"I've been on many boards and you don't ever overturn a board's decision because if you do that, you violate your own policies," Paul Beebe of Guilford said.

Naylor said the board uses Robert's Rules of Order.

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"As a point of order," she said, "votes can be overturned."

"But this is a year later," Beebe said. "It should have been overturned after the meeting."

Henry Zacchini, a social studies teacher at the high school and Glickman's father, said the vote was to resurface the field.

"It could be resurfaced with pebbles, with whatever, animal fur, anything," he said. "Anything the board sees fit."

Zacchini believes the money would be better spent on hiring more para-educators. He also worries about the toxicity of materials in a synthetic field.

Addressing a claim from Sarah Childs Gagnon of Brattleboro that the process has not been inclusive to those who might not feel comfortable speaking in public, Naylor said the board accepts letters and emails.

Kate O'Connor, former Brattleboro Select Board member and executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, said there is no harm in including other options to resurface the field.

"Also, what is rarely mentioned is this is potentially a $1.25 million project and I think the disbursement of that much taxpayer dollars is a very careful consideration," she said.

Jodi Normandeau of Dummerston encouraged the board to look at other possibilities or locations for natural fields. She shared concerns about the environmental impact.

Given the lack of an artificial turf field, Sarah Day of Brattleboro described her daughter as "pretty lucky."

"She actually got to go to college and she's actually a scholarship athlete there playing lacrosse," she said. "So not having a turf field put her at a competitive disadvantage versus other students who are competing for that same scholarship money."

Diana Whitney of Brattleboro, whose daughters play soccer, called for gender equity in sports.

"My vision is that before they graduate, they are able to play under the lights with the community coming together to cheer for the girls varsity soccer team in the way that this town comes together to cheer for the football players," she said.

Kim Price, former Brattleboro Town School District board member, suggested an artificial field might attract more students and families to the area. She said her son's biggest dream was to play a soccer game on the field.

Having two additional weeks on the field is "a big deal for lacrosse," said Brian Tyler of Brattleboro, who has two sons who played in high school and his daughter is involved in the sport there now. He described poor conditions when fields are wet or the ground is cold and hard.

His wife Jill Stahl Tyler, who served on the Brattleboro Town School Board, said more teams and students could use a synthetic field for longer periods of times. To scrap the project given all the time administrators have spent on planning, she added, "would be a waste of taxpayer money."

John Murphy, who helps with lacrosse programming, estimated that the football team plays six games a year on the field while the boys and girls lacrosse teams play six or seven.

"Right now, there's 175 students participating in sanctioned sports who are playing on fields that are not regulation," he said. "How is that even allowed in a state where the Vermont Principals Association considers athletics co-curriculum?"

Chris Sawyer, high school athletic director, said the project is about providing equity to field hockey and soccer teams.

"They deserve better," he said.

Steve Perrin, high school principal, said construction would need to start by June to have a synthetic field ready by next fall. He warned that a grass field would not allow the school to expand its programs.

Liz Adams of Putney said she had been surprised to learn that the field had not been resurfaced since 1965. Sawyer credited Robert Clark, facility manager, for that feat.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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