Amherst Regional School Committee punts track decision to new year, new members

The Amherst Regional High School varsity athletic field and six-lane track is in line for a multimillion-dollar overhaul.

The Amherst Regional High School varsity athletic field and six-lane track is in line for a multimillion-dollar overhaul. STAFF FILE PHOTO


Staff Writer

Published: 12-15-2023 1:35 PM

AMHERST — Artificial turf will remain the mandated surface for a new playing field inside a renovated track at Amherst Regional High School, even as debate continues in the four regional towns about whether such a requirement should be dropped.

The Amherst Regional School Committee put off a decision Tuesday on amending the original $1.5 million borrowing authorization, which it approved in March 2022, requiring that the interior field be synthetic. Proponents of such an amendment say it would provide flexibility to choose a less expensive and, to some critics, a more environmentally friendly grass surface option for the project.

The committee voted 5-4 to delay a vote until Jan. 9, allowing three new Amherst representatives, elected in November, to join the nine-member panel.

Interim Superintendent Dogulas Slaughter told the committee that without running the proposed motion by bond counsel, the funding sources for the entire project, including the $1.5 million to be borrowed by the four regional district towns, Amherst, Pelham, Shutesbury and Leverett, could be at risk.

The reorientation of the track, rebuilt with eight lanes, and the synthetic turf interior, would come at a cost of around $4.74 million, and hinges on successful fundraising by the Hurricane Boosters group. A grass surface would be about $700,000 less, according to earlier estimates, though might require more maintenance and would limit how often games could be played.

Chairwoman Sarahbess Kenney of Pelham,voted with the majority in postponing a vote. “It seems not worth it to me to make a motion that has such a large dollar figure attached to it without making sure it’s OK legally,” Kenney said.

Kenney was joined by Amherst representatives Irv Rhodes, Gabriela Weaver and Roger Wallace, and Leverett representative Tilman Wolf. Voting against the delay were Amherst representatives Jennifer Shiao and Katie Lazdowski, Pelham representative William Sherr and Shutesbury representative Anna Heard.

Lazdowski, Wallace and Weaver will be leaving the committee at the end of December after being appointed in October.

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Heard said she wants to get a better estimates of the difference in grass and turf costs, and also know whether the synthetic surface would use crumb rubber, which may be a source of contamination from PFAS forever chemicals.

“If there’s a real commitment to not using crumb rubber, then I think we need a better estimate of what that cost difference will be,” Heard said.

Heard added that she is “extremely worried” that the project timeline may be extended by another six months to a year without a revised debt authorization.

Slaughter, though, said designers will already be grappling with the issues of turf or grass.

Assuming funding is in place and the final design choices have been made, Slaughter said bids for construction would be advertised in January or February 2025. By then, he expects there to be a resolution around both the funding level and the playing surface.

With so much committee time consumed by the track and field project, Weaver suggested creating a subcommittee that would investigate the pros and cons of grass and artificial turf surfaces, and engage many people in the communities. “I think it’s important information that should be gathered in a considered way,” Weaver said.

Lazdowski said this would improve the School Committee’s work. “By adding a subcommittee, these meetings can be more efficient and student-centered,” Lazdowski said.

The creation of the new subcommittee passed 7-1, with Kenney voting against and Rhodes abstaining.

Several comments were made about the track, built in 1999, and the interior field. Both are in poor condition.

In her oral comments, Elizabeth Haygood, a retired teacher and coach, said there is urgency to act.

“We need to keep it in the forefront of our minds, because it comes to the pride of the most disenfranchised students who use sports as a catalyst to wake up in the morning and come into this building,” Haygood said.

Some, like Kathleen Traphagen, encouraged the committee to provide flexibility. “This action will not eliminate the possibility of building a turf field but will give the project the best chance of progressing,” Traphagen wrote.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at