DEEP RIVER — After three hours of debate Wednesday night, the Region 4 Board of Education voted 7-1 to approve borrowing nearly $10 million to revamp athletic fields at the middle school and high school.
The $9.6 million bond would cover a complete renovation of Valley Regional High School’s practice field and upper field, the partial renovation of its baseball and softball fields, and a renovation of the football field along with the construction of a six-lane running track. It also includes constructing two new soccer fields and a cross country course on a controversial piece of property the district purchased in 2017, known as the “Mislick property.”
The bond also includes funds to reconstruct two soccer fields at John Winthrop Middle School.
Superintendent of Schools Brian White explained that the district, which includes Chester, Deep River and Essex, had been working toward revamping the athletic facilities for three years. In 2020, the district contracted with the civil engineering firm BSC to evaluate its existing fields.
“We have potholes in the field. We have potholes in the track surface. These are the conditions that, when we talk about safety considerations and concerns, really give us cause for alarm,” White said.
White presented quotes from the BSC report that underscored poor drainage on the fields and problems with compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. White said he knew of family members who had been unable to attend games because they were physically unable to get to the fields.
The bond would be paid back over 20 years, with an expected interest rate of 4.25 percent — meaning a total of about $14 million.
Comments at the public hearing veered back and forth between residents protesting the size of the bond and the use of the Mislick property, and student athletes and coaches lamenting the state of the fields and underscoring the urgent need for repairs.
Students described fields that were uneven, with divots and bumps that posed a risk of injury. One member of the softball team said a teammate injured her knee on the softball field, which could potentially keep her out of games for the rest of the season.
“Our team refers to the field as the ‘dirt patch,’” said Mimi Siegel, a junior who will be captain of the girl’s field hockey team next year. Siegel described the field condition as “deplorable” and said she and her teammates last year found themselves picking glass off the field from bottles that were thrown during a football game.
“As someone who is hoping to play in college, it is impossible for coaches to get a sense of my level of play during games on this field, as the conditions prevent me and my team from playing at a top level,” she said.
Jack Finnegan, a member of the baseball team, said his team had coined the term “Valley Hop” to describe the strange directions the ball goes when it bumps against the uneven ground on the field.
“The only advice coaches can give is to get in front of the ball and stick with it,” Finnegan said. “But in reality, conditions like these create uncertainty, reluctance and fear, which are detrimental in baseball.”
Parents and coaches also spoke in support of the project. But members of the public pushed back on several points, including the proposal to build two new grass fields on the 13-acre Mislick property. In 2017, the district purchased the property without having the necessary funds budgeted, and without getting an independent appraisal on the property.
Sue Evans, a Deep River resident, said the board’s history with the Mislick property purchase made it difficult for her to trust a bond request for the athletic fields.
“I have trouble giving any credibility to monetary requests from this board,” Evans said.
Evans and other residents also protested the board’s decision to request the bonding money for the fields as a single package rather than breaking it up into smaller requests.
“Providing the schools with a slush fund to fix the athletic fields is not fair to taxpayers,” she said.
White said the district was requesting the bonds this year was because it was on the verge of paying off a long-term bond from previous renovations on the middle and high schools, and that bonding this year would prevent the district from having to face spikes or dips in its debt service, which could affect the town’s tax rate.
Others questioned the district’s ability to maintain the fields over time.
Cheryl Service, of Deep River, said she felt disturbed while walking around the fields and seeing expensive equipment “sitting outside to rot and rust.”
“I cannot trust that you’re going to be good stewards of our money. The fields haven’t been maintained,” Service said. “Where’s the money for maintenance? Was there not funds set aside the last time that the fields were done? How can we be sure that (if) we’re going to give you $10 million to redo all these fields, they’re not going to be in the same condition 10 or 15 years from now because you haven’t addressed the issue of maintenance?”
Others pushed back against the idea of having an artificial turf field, citing potential health risks to students. White said while it wasn’t yet determined whether the field reconstructions would be synthetic or grass, it was possible that one of the fields might be artificial.
People also expressed concern about the cost of the bond, and how it would affect taxpayers living in town.
“If we keep just throwing more money … at the situation, it may fix it, but what we need to look forward to is 20 years from now,” said Carl Ericson, of Deep River. “My kids have graduated and it seems like more kids are moving out of the community, out of the state because they can’t afford to live here.”
Several people said they would support the bonding package if the $2 million for the new fields on the Mislick property were removed. Board member Rick Daniels, the lone vote against the bond, said he believed the funds for the Mislick property shouldn’t be included. He added that he was concerned about the prospect of future bonds the district would need to take out and how those could pile up over time.
“I don’t dispute the fact that our fields are a mess … but I’m all about not asking for any more fields until we learn and are able to care for the ones that we’ve got,” Daniels said. “In previous administrations, money for maintenance disappeared quickly, and it just was not put back into it. Had we done that, we wouldn’t have been in this situation.”
But several board members and local residents said that, without the use of the Mislick property, there would be no place to put the cross country course, leaving students to take long runs along Route I-80.
Coaches and board members also pointed out that the additional fields would allow the already existing fields to rest between seasons.
“If you do not get those extra fields, that extra cycle time over the lifetime value of those fields will incur higher costs,” BOE member John Stack said in a school board meeting convened immediately after the public hearing.
At the board meeting, Daniels said he was concerned that having the Mislick property included in the bond referendum could cause voters to reject it entirely.
Meanwhile, board Chair Kate Sandmann said she was very “moved” by what the students shared at the public hearing.
“It really matters whether or not you’re on your home field. It matters a lot,” she said. “If we don’t do the whole thing, I think we might as well not do it at all.”
The district has scheduled a referendum on the project for May 2.
This story has been updated to correct the date of the referendum