Windham Southeast Board seeks review of fields, needs
BRATTLEBORO — Contentious discussions with the public over a synthetic field proposed for Natowich Field at Brattleboro Union High School have led school board members to put the project on pause.
Wednesday's 6-1 vote by the Windham Southeast School District Board of Directors to pursue an independent review of fields controlled by the district and a long-term feasibility study put the field resurfacing project on indefinite hold. Board member Tim Morris did not attend the meeting.
Board member David Schoales cited environmental and safety issues before making the motion.
"I think we should consider looking at other ways to solve the problems that have been identified," he said, referring to improving equity and access for student athletes.
Board member Shaun Murphy, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said the motion was "too ambiguous." He has been supportive of resurfacing with synthetic materials but also voiced worries about the potential harms.
Steve Perrin, high school principal, said the study will need to include engineering.
"If we're going to do it right, we're going to have to look at the impact of changing fields," he said, citing things such as water runoff and drainage.
During the district's Finance Committee meeting earlier in the evening, Perrin urged the committee to invest money to get "real numbers" and "a longer term feasibility study" of the fields. He estimated an engineering study would cost $70,000 and it would go beyond the scope of a study conducted by Stevens & Associates in 2013.
The district spans the high school and other schools in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney.
Equity in fall sports
As chairwoman of the district's Programmatic and Performance Equity Committee, board member Emily Murphy Kaur said 85 females and 110 males play fall sports now -— soccer, field hockey and football.
"When we broke it down by gender, it was a little bit jarring because it didn't take into account that it's really just the football team making up the difference in gender," she said. "We have 50 percent of male athletes who play on regulation-size fields with lights and bleachers, and 50 percent of male athletes are the football team. I mean, it's a massive team."
Natowich Field is used for football in the fall and lacrosse in the spring. An artificial surface has been looked at as a way to expand the number of teams and sports using the field, which has lighting, bleachers and bathroom facilities.
Kaur reported 17 percent of male athletes play on non-regulation-sized fields with lights; that mostly accounts for the varsity soccer team. She said 33 percent of male athletes play on regulated-sized fields with no lights, and limited bathrooms and seating.
Kaur reported that female athletes do not play on regulation-sized fields with lights, bleachers and facilities nearby.
About 57 percent play on non-regulated fields with lights but limited bleachers and facilities. That accounts for varsity girls soccer, and varsity and JV field hockey.
Kaur described being surprised by the finding that junior-varsity teams played on regulation-sized fields, although there are no lights, and limited bleachers and bathrooms. Those teams add up to about 38 percent of student athletes.
About 34 percent of athletes play games on non-regulated fields with lights but limited bleachers and facilities. Those students are on teams playing field hockey, and varsity girls and boys soccer.
With artificial turf, the district would be anticipated to see Natowich Field used in the fall — 52 percent by both football teams, 25 percent by both field hockey teams, 11 percent by varsity girls soccer and 11 percent by varsity boys soccer. Kaur said JV and middle school teams would likely use regulation-sized fields with no lights nor facilities nearby.
Board Chairwoman Kristina Naylor said artificial turf is made up of "plastic blades that look like grass and then there's some in-fill that helps cushion that and keep the grass up straight." Recycled tires are used for the crumb rubber in-fill, which had been proposed for Natowich Field.
"One of the concerns about that has been heavy metal exposure," Naylor said, noting there is a study being conducted now by the Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
She said zinc and lead have been found in the crumb rubber, and the latter is the largest area for concern about student health. She noted zinc could find its way into rivers.
Naylor said the only injuries reported to occur more often on artificial turf involve athletes' lower legs; the chance for those injuries to occur increase by 16 to 24 percent.
"The thought is that the grass part is stickier so athletes ... if they are turning, they're more likely to strain because the synthetic turf doesn't give up on the cleat the way natural grass would," she said, adding that younger and less experienced players had a higher rate of lower leg injuries.
Naylor pointed to a small study that showed artificial turf increases the chance of athletes getting infected with Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA by seven times. She said the potential for heat stroke also is higher on a synthetic surface.
"The medical school at Mount Sinai recommends a moratorium on artificial turf from recycled rubber tires until more evidence is available," she added.
Speaking for the district's Sustainability Council, board member Thomas Nolan said the artificial turf is made of plastic and fossil fuels are used for its creation.
"Natural grass sod traps carbon, lets off oxygen," he said. "Then there's been concern if we have the artificial turf, it would have to be disposed of in eight to 12 years."
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People of Windham County entered the debate Wednesday, saying in a letter that it "vehemently opposed" synthetic turf. Its concerns had to do with climate change, and the greater potential for injuries and associated health care costs.
The board also was told it would receive a letter with 100 signatures from people preferring natural grass for the resurfacing of Natowich Field.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at email@example.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.
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