MIDDLETOWN — The Board of Education voted on Tuesday to approve the replacement of the high school turf and track field and to forward the project to a building committee for more in-depth study on the benefits of different types of athletic fields.
“[The building committee] will be able to take this from the beginning and look at what options are available. They will also be able to look at natural versus the turf and make a decision based on the information that they have,” Board Chair Deborah Cain said at the meeting.
Kevin Dion, director of facilities for the district, said that the turf field was 14 years old — “well past its useful life” and that they were starting to see tears in the field.
Elisha De Jesus, director of athletics at the high school, said that the district had 35 varsity athletic teams plus physical education classes and the band that use the field.
“The importance of having the turf for our kids, getting it redone is really important as far as athletics is concerned for the Middletown community,” said De Jesus.
The cost to resurface the track and redo the turf field is $766,303, according to Andrew O’Connor of Keystone, and the warranty will last for eight years for the field and five years for the track. Dion said that he had not calculated how much it would cost to change from a turf field to a natural field.
Board member Dina Ford said she had done some research looking into cork-based or plant-based fill rather than using rubber fill. Dion said the current scope of the project was just replacing a top layer and adding more fill. Removing the fill that already exists and replacing it with organic materials, he said, would mean an additional cost. He also said that organic materials break down more quickly.
But several community members attending the meeting brought up concerns about health risks of synthetic turf to the students. Krishna Winston, who serves as the chair for Middletown’s Resource Recycling Advisory Council, said she was concerned that, although the effects of playing on synthetic turf might not show up immediately, they could have negative consequences for students down the road.
“I beg you to please inform yourselves before you rush into this,” said Winston.
Community member Rebecca McLaughlin also expressed concern about the toxicity of synthetic turf. She brought up a narrow 2015 vote in the Common Council that removed references to synthetic fields from a $37 million bond package to renovate the city’s parks and athletic fields.
“Sports are an important part of our children’s lives. I really support sports, but please protect our kids and provide them with a healthy alternative to the synthetic fields,” said McLaughlin.
Dion said that converting the artificial field to a natural grass field would require “a complete overhaul,” including civil engineering work and a rebuild of the drainage system, which would be an added expense to the district. He also said that because Middletown was located on a floodplain and had a lot of clay in the soil, a natural field might not be feasible for the district.
“It was a consideration that was thought of, but it’s very cost prohibitive at the moment and it may not get us the desired result for what we’re looking for and the heavy use that we’re looking for,” said Dion.
Dion also said that natural fields would require more hours, training and equipment to maintain, and that the turf field, in addition to allowing the field to be used year-round, would look better.
“It is a jewel for the high school,” said Dion. “People see that.”
Cain said that in a February 23 facility meeting, she asked about the health effects of the turf fields, and that the vendor, Keystone, had said that there was no evidence of a link between the materials being used and cancer. She said the same material used for the field is also found on playgrounds and in car tires.
Dion conceded that artificial fields get hotter in the summer, and that people liked the feel of natural grass.
“I do think we have to look at both options,” said Dion. “But what I can see in the surrounding area around the high school, it will be very difficult to put a natural field there.”
Board member Delita Rose Daniels said that she would feel confident voting to move the turf field forward if there was an assurance that the committee would consider all the potential options for the field.
“It sounds like we know everything we might need to know about a turf field, but there’s limited information on the organic field,” said Daniels. “If we move this along, I think that it’s very important to have all of that information to present for the next steps.”
Acting Superintendent Alberto Vazquez-Matos said that the district had set aside a limited amount of funds for the field, and that changes could require “additional financial planning.”
He said the building committee would be responsible for researching the options for the field.
“We will do our due diligence on making sure we look at the pros and cons as it relates to … the conversations of artificial versus natural turfs,” said Vazquez-Matos.
Cheryl Walcott, the district’s Finance and Resource Management Specialist, said that the district would transfer $1.068 million to the building committee to give the committee the ability to do the necessary research on the field. The funds, she said, would come from the district salary line, since there were a large number of open positions in the district.