As Region 4 Retires Debt, School Officials Contemplate Ambitious Borrowing for Athletics

REGION 4 — A turf field, a cross country trail, repairs to tennis courts and renovations of the soccer and baseball fields are a few of the possible middle school and high school athletic projects being considered by the Board of Education that together could cost as much as $11.3 million, though the board is expected to approve significantly less spending.

At a meeting of the Board of Education on Tuesday, Superintendent Brian White said that the needs of the district’s athletic program should be considered alongside a review of the school facilities. Earlier in May, White suggested that only a portion of the projects would be approved. 

“We’re not necessarily advocating for all of it, it might not all be needed,” White said. “I certainly don’t have an expectation that all of this is going to be tackled, but I do think it will be important to get a lot of stakeholder feedback around which of these facilities are most in need and which are of the greatest value not only to our schools … but really our communities at large.” 

The district is in the process of hiring an engineering or architectural firm to study the needs of the district’s school facilities, which White said would be combined with recommendations for athletics when the district considers bonding as early as next year. 

Finance Director Robert Grissom told board members in May that the district’s annual debt payments will drop from $1.38 million this year to $735,000 next year, as the district retires two prior bonds that totaled $6.5 million. 

Grissom proposed a series of projects that could be bonded for the 2022-23 school year, based on a study that the district commissioned from the consulting firm BSC Group. The group presented its findings to the board in December. 

Additional recommendations include replacing the high school running track surface, adding a six-lane track, converting the upper field from grass to turf, and repairing the tennis courts at the high school. Projects would also include renovations to the infield and outfield of the high school baseball field, adding batting tunnels and LED lighting, and renovating the soccer field. 

Those projects would require bonding $6.745 million and carry an annual payment of $674,500.

According to Jeff Swan, the athletic coordinator at Valley Regional High School, the district received a letter from the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference warning that without repairs the high school upper competition field would not be allowed to host playoff games. 

“That alone shows that there is a need to do something with these fields,” said Swan. “That alone is a little embarrassing, to get that letter.” 

The BSC Group had further recommendations, including reconstructing the four soccer fields at John Winthrop Middle School, renovating and expanding the practice field at the high school, and building two new fields and a cross country trail at the 13-acre Mislick Property adjacent to the high school, and purchased in 2017.  

Grissom said that funding for these projects could come through a second bond taken out after the district retires a $7.760 million bond in 2023-24. The additional projects are estimated to cost around $5.339 million. 

In the meeting on Tuesday, White said the district wanted to solicit additional comments from the community to understand which projects should be prioritized. 

White said that the district has created an athletics committee with members of the staff and the Board of Education. 

He said the district plans to complete a “self-study” with a group of student representatives, parents and staff to look at the athletic program. He said the district will also put out surveys for parents, students and staff in the coming weeks to solicit feedback. 

Board member Rick Daniels said there had been concerns that the district maintain its current facilities rather than add other, new facilities. He said that addressing the neglected current facilities would have significant expenses attached to them. 

White agreed that the district should proceed “cautiously” when considering the often costly projects that BSC proposed.  

“I think that generally speaking … we did learn that our facilities over a period of time would have benefited from more routine upkeep,” said White. “These fields and facilities have essentially a service life, and what we’re realizing is that many of these fields are essentially at a point and in a condition that they would all benefit from some level of rehabilitation to varying degrees.” 

Board member John Stack expressed a concern that these projects were being proposed while Valley Regional High School was facing declining enrollment. But White said that he didn’t expect the size of the athletic program to decline even if the school itself was serving fewer children. 

White said he expects more in-depth discussion about the needs of both the athletic facilities and the school buildings in the spring of 2022. 

Board Chair Kate Sandmann said that the athletic fields and events were important not just for the schools, but also for the larger community.

“They do draw people out of their houses on the weekends and they are a source of pride and I would argue they even tie into social-emotional learning a little bit if done well,” she said. “I do think it’s absolutely important to maintain our fields and to have safe fields for our athletes.”  

Latest from Emilia Otte