SPRINGFIELD – Questions over the use of the school district’s new turf field surfaced last week, giving rise to the question of whether the general public is getting a fair shot at access to the field.
The 2013-2014 school year is the first time the $3.4 million turf field is being used by the Jonathan Dayton High School athletic teams and, while wrinkles involving scheduling are still being ironed out, one resident raised concerns that the district is not being fair about letting outside athletic teams use the field.
Last week resident Joy Sudler Stein told LocalSource that Superintendent of Schools Michael Davino had “refused” to allow the Soccer Club of Springfield to schedule games on the new turf field.
Sudler Stein pointed out that the lease agreement she obtained between the school district and township by using the Open Public Records Act clearly indicated the field can be used by the general public.
“The agreement between the township and board of education dated Aug. 28, 2012, indicated on Page 3 that the public can use the field because it is ‘by and for’ Springfield,” she said, adding that while the lease agreement may say this, the school district fenced off part of the turf field for the high school girls softball team.
“There are 500 kids in the soccer club who need a place to play and they won’t take down that fence on weekends so our kids can play,” said Sudler Stein, whose son plays for the Soccer Club of Springfield.
The parent went on to explain that she spoke directly with the person in charge of buildings and grounds for the school district and did not get anywhere.
“Why do they have to leave that fence up all weekend?” Sudler Stein asked, pointing out that now the turf field is unused all weekend when it could be in use.
“We drove by there last weekend and the kids looked longingly at the field because they want to play soccer on a turf field. This just isn’t fair,” she added, stressing that the township floated millions in bonds to pay for the $3.4 million turf field and taxpayers should be able to use it.
She also objected to the fact that the school district padlocks the tennis courts.
“They want someone from the school to greet people using the courts and unlock the gate,” the resident said.
“My taxpayer dollars go for this and no matter who I talk to I’m not getting anywhere,” said a frustrated Sudler Stein.
Part of the problem, she said, is that every field in Union County is booked, except for a county-owned lighted turf field on the Elizabeth border, which they would have to pay a fee in order to use. Sudler Stein said people in town should not have to go to this length so their kids can play soccer.
“The school district is saying that taking down the fence that is around the girls softball field would cost too much money,” she explained, adding that the school district cannot hold the turf field hostage.
“My taxpayer dollars go to pay for this field and we should be able to use it,” she added.
On Tuesday, the superintendent said in an interview with LocalSource that the school district is not holding the new turf field hostage by any means.
“Is the field locked? Yes,” said Davino. “The agreement with the township and how this situation works is that the first priority is high school athletics, the second is township recreation sports programs and the third are other outside athletic groups in town,” the superintendent said, adding that, “the procedures for use of the field have not changed because of the new turf field.”
Davino also pointed out that in the lineup for use of the field the soccer club is third, not first. As for the fence that sections off the high school girls softball field, the superintendent explained that taking down the fence is no easy task.
“The fence comes in individual panels that have to be measured, assembled and lined up. That takes three hours to take down and three hours, or more, to put up,” said Davino, who has been superintendent for the school district for 10 years.
The superintendent added that residents see an empty field and start making assumptions.
“People see a fence and say ‘take it down’ but it’s just not that simple,” he explained, noting that the district is still learning about the new turf field, including how to care for it.
“I have to deal with softball parents who are concerned their kids are playing on a regulation field,” said Davino.
Sudler Stein questioned whether elected officials were doing their due diligence by trying to ensure taxpayers’ children can get use out of the new turf field.
“We’re in constant contact with the township recreation department, but we do have certain priorities,” said the superintendent. “The heart and soul of the agreement with the township is what worked for us before the turf field was built.”
Davino explained there are actually outside teams using the field this year.
“It’s great that we can now accommodate the Little League baseball teams,” he said, adding this includes hundreds of township children.
“We do the most we can, but people’s perceptions don’t always match up,” Davino added.
LocalSource spoke with Mayor Rich Huber late last week regarding the situation, but he preferred not to comment on the matter until ongoing discussions between officials and the school district have finished.
He did point out that the school has first priority, but admitted he has been having “discussions” with the school district with regard to use of the field by other groups.
“Really, I can’t talk about this until the end of next week but, yes, we are talking to the school district in order to iron this out,” the mayor added.