WOBURN - The School Committee recently permitted the execution of a $600,000 contract to replace the main polyturf field at Connolly Stadium, but stipulated the agreement must allow the district to delay payments until fiscal year 2022.
In an unanimous vote at their most recent meeting, the elected officials finally sanctioned the long-delayed capital project, which Facilities Director David Dunkley has been advocating for during budget talks over the past several years.
According to Assistant Superintendent for Finance Joseph Elia, the district has already saved up enough funding in a special athletic field rental revenue account to foot about 75 percent of the track and field replacement cost.
Further identifying around $63,000 in left over funding from previously-approved capital projects to allocate towards the WMHS athletic complex, the proposed budget for the renovations called for withdrawing the remaining money from the district's energy reserve account.
However, with the COVID-19 crisis decimating local and state revenue streams, a financial effect that is expected to trickle down into the FY'21 school budget, education board members like Dr. John Wells and Andrew Lipsett suggested the discretionary reserves might be needed for critical core education needs next year.
"That's really the only account we could use for budget relief," said Wells, referring to the $700,000 that is currently sitting in the energy reserve fund.
"Given there is some possibility of using money in the energy account for academics and that we just had a conversation about what could be significant budget cuts, I don't know how comfortable I am with the optics of spending a large amount of money on a field renovation," Lipsett later remarked.
Worried about the repercussions of waiting, advocates of okaying the field replacement included School Committee member Colleen Cormier, who reminded her colleagues that high school athletes could be at an increased risk of sustaining a injury on the 14-year-old artificial playing surface.
In a previous assessment of the polyturf field at Connolly Stadium, Dunkley and other school officials had concluded the athletic area's rubber pellets, which have a 10-to-15 year lifespan, had been degraded to a point where there was an elevated likelihood of injuries.
"I agree with the concerns about whether or not it's the best use of [the energy reserve] funds. But I am concerned about the increased risk of injury," said Cormier. "As Mr. Dunkley explained, the fill under the actual turf, those rubber pellets, they shift around and are lost. They wear down and don't absorb shocks as well."
Citing a potential compromise approach to the item, Elia explained the winning bidder for the field renovation project had agreed to keep its price fixed for an entire year, meaning the School Committee could ink the deal but not appropriate the funding until FY'22.
Under that scenario, the School Committee would sign the agreement, but instruct the vendor to wait until after July 1, 2021 to begin work.
The alternative, wholly endorsed by entire School Committee, was particularly attractive to members like Patricia Chisholm.
According to Chisholm, though she would be hard-pressed to okay a field renovation that potentially took away funding for core academic needs, she was also reluctant to endorse other compromises — such as a pitch by Cormier to fund only the main field replacement and wait on the track option.
Given the number of unknowns around the COVID-19 pandemic and the state's response to it — which could prevent athletics from being allowed for much of the 2020-2021 school year — School Committee member Michael Mulrenan agreed the one-year delay presented the best option.
"It has to be rectified at some point. We an do it next year and try to find more money [in the interim]," Mulrenan said.
The new Connolly Stadium, funded through a $1 million appropriation approved by the City Council towards the tail-end of the $68 million WMHS replacement project, officially opened to the public in 2008. Approximately a year later, local officials announced the planned opening of a separate polyturf practice field area.
In agreeing to foot the bill for the upgraded athletic fields, the City Council and School Committee agreed to establish the special WMHS field maintenance account, which holds money raised through field and WMHS facility rentals over the past decade.
Over the five-to-seven years, Dunkley has repeatedly advised city leaders that the rental income would be insufficient to cover the full bill for overhauling the polyturf playing fields.
The school facilities director has been so concerned about the sufficiency of the revolving account that he repeatedly sought money from the regular school budget to supplement the financial holdings. The School Committee ultimately nixed those $50,000 line-items in years past in order to fund more pressing educational initiatives.
Last year, after analyzing the turf replacement costs, the School Committee reached a tentative deal with Mayor Scott Galvin to split the cost of the field replacement with the city.
However, central office administrators later asked Galvin to delay the project and instead fund other capital priorities. In a memo to the school department last August, Galvin, as a result of talks about other districtwide priorities, agreed to the request.
In total, the mayor last year included $488,000 for school projects in his supplement $3.3 million capital budget.