Two School Districts Go to Voters Next Week

Voters in two school districts will let their boards of education know what they think about plans for major projects next week. Although some residents argued that voting was inappropriate at this time of year, the votes, which are expected to be decisive, are scheduled for Tuesday in Bridgehampton and Wednesday in Sag Harbor. 

The Bridgehampton School was built in 1939 and is the only local school building that has never had a major renovation. Along with Shelter Island, the district is rare because it educates students from kindergarten through 12th grade. To do so it has relied on portable classrooms, which are now nearing the end of their practical lifespan. Although the student population remains small, it has grown by 35 percent in the last three years.

In order to provide the courses mandated by the state and the activities its diverse student population deserves, independent study takes place in a hallway. Corrosion is evident in the sole science lab, which houses physics, earth science, biology, and chemistry. And the robotics and computer lab in the basement is not accessible to the handicapped. Students study and do research in the library, but they also take classes in art and sewing there. Most of the second-floor classrooms have a capacity for 12 to 16 high school students while 18 or more are in the elementary grades now and expected to move up. The state has given the district a waiver so that its championship Killer Bees basketball team can play in a gymnasium that doubles as an auditorium, with the stage a fitness and weight-lifting room and the equipment moved when the drama club has a production. 

The Bridgehampton School Board has been forthright in going to voters, re-evaluating the amount needed — $24.7 million — and increasing estimates of what it will cost to borrow the money. After announcing different bonding details earlier in the process, it decided to issue bonds over 20 years rather than 15 and announced the interest rate would be 3.5 percent rather than 2 percent.

Bridgehampton faced the elimination of the high-school grades and sending students in those grades elsewhere in 2009, when three residents who were in favor of doing so ran for the board, but the community voted overwhelmingly to keep high school students at home. The time has come to bring the school into the 21st century by approving the renovation plans. 

The issue in Sag Harbor is about the renovation of the athletic field, which may sound easier for voters to grapple with, but, unlike in Bridgehampton, where a citizens committee has had moderate objection, the proposal has caused intense division. 

Voters had approved $1.6 million for the installation of synthetic turf on the fields in 2013, but a delay in state approval put the project on hold. In the interim, the cost went up and the district is now asking permission to use $365,000 from its capital reserves for the installation. The intervening years brought concerns about the health effects of the toxic materials used in manufacturing the turf to the public’s attention, however. 

The turf field would be used by all grades at Pierson Middle and High School for gym classes and by the field hockey, soccer, and junior varsity and middle school baseball and softball teams, not to mention other student activities. The district plans to use CoolFill, a coating of the crumb rubber pieces of which the turf is made that reflects heat, rather than absorbs it, and moderates the turf’s temperature.

Nevertheless, last week both the Sag Harbor Elementary School PTA and Pierson Middle and High School Parent Teacher Student Association voted against the additional money, in effect ruling against artificial turf.

The sticking point was the safety of the material, which has an infill made of recycled tires. According to the website of Grassroots Environmental Education, based in Port Washington, which made a presentation at a recent forum, “artificial turf fields are typically filled with up to 10 tons of ground-up truck and automobile tires. This recycled rubber contains high levels of toxic substances which prohibit its disposal in landfills.” Arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead, zinc, along with acetone, ethylbenzene, tetrachloroethylene, toluene and xylene, and phthalates were identified.

Those who favor the use of artificial turf have good intentions. They see it as an investment in a long-term installation that will keep players out of the mud. But the parent organizations’ decisive vote against it is persuasive. Sag Harborites would be right to ask for natural grass.