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Hartford - With voters having rejected a School Board proposal to provide an additional $3 million for school recreation projects, two members say they will push to abandon plans to develop a new track and field and instead focus on building a new field house.
The proposed bond became necessary after the school district discovered it had vastly underestimated the cost of building a new track and artificial turf field, but voters overwhelmingly rejected the bid Tuesday during Town Meeting balloting by a 931-675 vote.
The school district originally had $3.25 million available - $900,000 for middle school improvements, $1.55 million to build a field house and $800,000 for the track and turf field. More extensive site work than planned made it clear that the track and field couldn't be completed without additional funding. And the middle school renovations - which, in part, entailed overhauling the gymnasium and cafeteria - ended up costing $600,000 more than estimated, and has prompted former School Board member Jeff Arnold to question whether the School Board had the authority to shift funds from the other projects to cover that shortfall.
School Board Chairman Kevin Christie and board member Peter Merrill said they have been told that the district now has $1.5 million available. New electrical, plumbing and water lines that will service multiple projects on the high school campus ate up the additional $250,000 left under the school's portion of the recreation bond, according to Superintendent Tom DeBalsi.
Both Christie and Merrill said they would advocate using it all for the field house, largely because it would benefit the most students.
"With the track and field, we are talking about something that would benefit a relatively small, but very important, group of people," Merrill said.
The proposed plan for the 7,128-square-foot field house is that it would house roughly $600,000 worth of fitness equipment obtained through a grant a few years ago that is currently sitting in storage. That state-of-the-art equipment would be available to all students in the district, Christie said. In addition, the field house would have locker rooms for sports teams, showers, a coaches room and changing rooms.
"I looked at who benefits the most," Merrill said.
Despite several other projects coming in over their allotted budgets, Christie said he is "totally sure" the field house will come in on target.
He said engineering studies for the field house were done when the board went out to bid for the $9 million bond last year.
Unlike the track and field and middle school projects - which experienced significant cost overruns - he said the plan for the field house is to build a new structure, which comes with less risk.
"New construction is pretty proforma," he said, noting digging below the surface and renovating old buildings can often turn up surprises.
Board member Eric Michaels said he was undecided and wanted to hear more from the community.
Board member Lori Dickerson could not be reached for comment, and newly elected member Paul Keane said he wasn't sure what School Board policy allowed him to say about the matter. The School Board is scheduled to take up the issue on March 12.
The proposed track would encircle an artificial turf field that would allow sports teams to use it earlier and later in the season.
The existing natural grass field near the high school can become a "mud bowl," says Hartford Athletic Director Joe James.
"By theof September, it really isn't very well playable for soccer," he said.
If the School Board ultimately decides to jettison its plan for a turf field, James said, the athletic department will cope.
"We are going to play on whatever is out there," James said. "We are a pretty good football team no matter the surface we play on."
He said sports teams have been successful without a track and a top-of-the-line playing surface, and will continue to be.
Depending on the sport, Hartford athletic teams play in both Division 1 and Division 2. If the sports program were solely classified as a Division 1 school, "we would be the only Division 1 school that doesn't have a track," James said.
Not everybody is convinced that the school district couldn't tackle both projects.
Arnold, who did not seek re-election this year, cast the lone vote against going out for a supplemental bond back in December, in part because he believed the unspent bond money would be sufficient if both projects were scaled-back.
Arnold calculates that the track - without the turf field - could be built for $800,000 and the remaining money would be enough to construct a smaller but "adequate" field house.
"You have to start thinking outside the box," Arnold said Thursday.
"You still have to dig soil up, and in order for it to fit, the field has to be moved because there wasn't enough space to put a track around the existing field," Christie said.
Arnold used the Hartford listserv Tuesday to accuse the School Board of refusing to get an opinion about what it would cost to get the track built without the turf field.
According to the board's Jan. 22 meeting minutes, the School Board "argues they have discussed this."
He also questioned if the School Board had the authority to shift $600,000 from recreation projects to cover cost overruns at the middle school without seeking public approval.
Paul Giuliani, the bond counsel for the town and school district, said that neither the town nor the school district is obligated to go back to the voters for authorization to move funds from one project to another.
"Essentially the board seeks voter authorization for the whole enchilada and leaves it up to the board as to where the dollars go," he said. "It was presented to voters in such a way to give them a sense of what the components were and their relative costs. The most common approach, and the one the district and town followed, was to get authorization for the total package and the way the process works is the Selectboard and school directors do have considerable latitude and discretion with moving the dollars around."
Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727- 3248.