School officials say uprgade needed now but some Finance Committee members worry about pandemic costs

FAIRHAVEN — An article slated to be voted on at this week’s Special Town Meeting involves approving a capital project where the high school’s athletic field would be converted from grass to turf.

Under the $1.4 million dollar proposal to replace the grass on the field with multi-use artificial turf, $200,000 of that amount would come from a trust fund set up for the high school. The other $1.2 million would come from borrowing.

School officials contend it’s a long overdue measure and, despite the pandemic and economic worries, it can’t wait any longer.

“It’s not a ‘like’ or ‘want’; It’s essential!” said Christopher Carrig, the athletic director for Fairhaven Public Schools.

According to school officials, the athletic field at the high school has been very problematic over the years due to its continued drainage and structural issues. “It’s no secret that the drainage under the field is horrendous. If it rains in the middle of the week, it will cancel all games on the weekend. It becomes a mud bowl,” said Brian Monroe, chair of the Fairhaven School Committee.

Monroe said when the Capital Planning Committee for the town gathered project requests submitted by every department for this fiscal year, a new athletic field for the high school ranked Number 2 on the list when it was voted on by town officials.

Carrig said that even before the pandemic canceled sports the athletic field was only being used for football and lacrosse games.

“We’ve reduced traffic on the field to preserve its surface. We’re spreading teams elsewhere. Seasons overlap because of the way we have to utilize fields,” he said.

All practices for teams have been off site at Cushman Park and the field over at Hastings Middle School. Games and practices for other games like soccer and field hockey have been held either on other school fields not specifically meant for these sports, or even at New Bedford school fields, such as Greater New Bedford Voc-Tech High School.

“We don’t have a dependable stadium field. We’re having home games scheduled at away sites,” said Superintendent Robert Baldwin when he spoke at the October 1 Finance Committee meeting.

Besides allowing for more games and team practice, a reliable field, according to Baldwin and Monroe, would allow access from community organizations to host events and non-school affiliated youth programs. “On the surface it looks like an athletic piece, but this project is much more. It will also provide opportunities for the community that we can’t provide now,” Baldwin said.

The proposal has the support of the Fairhaven High School Alumni Association, which, according to a post from President Robert Foster on its Facebook page, has pledged to purchase a new multi-sport scoreboard for the stadium once the new turf is installed.

According to Monroe, if the project is approved at Special Town meeting, there would be a six-month turnaround during which the contract bidding and architectural plans would be finalized as early as during the winter, and the actual installation could begin as early as next spring. The turf field could be ready for the start of the 2021 school year next fall.

Baldwin reminded the Finance Committee on Oct. 1 that this capital project proposal was originally slated to be included at the Annual Town Meeting earlier this year, but the pandemic and a reconfiguration to a virtual setting forced officials to postpone voting on many articles and focus only on immediate needs for keeping the town operational.

The Finance Committee on Oct. 1 again voted in favor of recommending this project, saying in its report for the town warrant that “the town continues to be in a strong financial position” and that it is “the benefit to the students in Fairhaven.”

The vote from the Finance Committee was a marginal 6-4 in favor, with a vocal minority declaring there’s too much uncertainty right now for such an investment.

“Although we all agree that the rehabilitation of the athletic field certainly has merit and should be addressed, it is a need that is not ‘critical’ at this time. The town’s future fiscal situation, while not dire, is uncertain due to the current reduction in state aid and loss of local tax revenues as a result of Covid-19, with no firm idea when the fiscal situation will improve,” said the minority report in the town warrant presented by those Finance Committee members in favor of postponing the article to spring 2021.

School officials said it is absolutely critical that this project be approved as soon as possible.

Baldwin emphasized to the Finance Committee that the timing of the six-month turnaround means any further delays means another year in which even without the pandemic, students’ sports programs will be hindered and graduation may not happen on the high school field.

Monroe pointed out that the class of 2020 couldn’t use the facilities last fall because of EEE concerns, that the pandemic canceled the spring season, and now the class of 2021 is getting the same treatment. “It would mean a massive boost for the kids in our community. The field has been a critical issue for years. We need this project to happen,” he said.

Said Baldwin: “Our kids can’t wait another day. I’ve seen first-hand when you tell kids that they can’t have a prom, that spring season is canceled, that fall is postponed. We’re so tired of giving bad news. I want to give them hope.”

Fairhaven’s Special Town Meeting is this Tuesday, Oct. 20, and will be conducted remotely, via Zoom, beginning at 7 p.m.

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