Acting Chair Heather Burke stood alone in objecting to the vote taken by the Old Rochester Regional School Committee on September 15 that will allow Old Rochester Youth Football two Sundays this fall to play its slate of games on ORR’s multi-purpose field.
The high school football field has been the subject of debate in recent years, as several high schools elsewhere in the region have replaced natural grass in their stadiums with state-of-the-art synthetic surfaces. A proposal taken last year to Town Meeting floors to install turf at ORR failed to find support in all three towns.
While the coronavirus pandemic effectively cancelled the wear and tear that high school athletic fields were scheduled to endure in the fall of 2020, a full slate of activities is back on ORR fields in 2021. With the September 15 vote, that will include the local Pop Warner program.
Christine Medeiros represented Old Rochester Youth Football at the ORR School Committee meeting, her first year in charge of the 12-year-old, nonprofit organization. The Bulldogs compete in the Spirit Conference of the Rhode Island/Southeastern Massachusetts chapter of Pop Warner Football.
“Without the support of the (ORR School) district, we truly feel our program will struggle to survive. … Playing on the main field means everything to our players,” said Medeiros, who told the committee that there have been no negative incidents and that the program has often left the field better than it was found. “I’ve often heard them saying, ‘Bulldog for life!’ Running around the field.”
Committee member Frances Kearns asked Medeiros why ORYF has been unable to use the stadium field the past two years. In addition to the pandemic, Medeiros was unsure about the current season other than she learned late that the School Committee needs to vote on the matter per Policy 606-D of the Building Use Code and could not get ORYF on the August agenda. Medeiros said she is thankful ORYF has been able to use the fields for practices this season.
As acting chair, Burke provided context, referencing the audit from a few years ago that discovered that the policy requiring a committee vote for outside use of school facilities had not been adhered to. An effort has been made to fix that to achieve consistent pricing policy and identify any lack of fairness in the process.
“The fact our field never has a time to rest … gets compacted and can deteriorate quickly. That’s why this field comes to the committee when not all of the rental facilities do,” said Burke.
ORR Superintendent of Schools Mike Nelson said discussions with Medeiros began during the summer, and the rest of the committee strongly supported ORYF’s request, considering only two Sundays were requested.
“Beyond the athletics, it’s the self-esteem…. I think we should do everything we can to keep them on that field,” said committee member Joe Pires, a former youth baseball coach.
Qualifying his own remarks with his support, committee member Jim Muse asked if there are other considerations necessary including insurance and answers to other questions regarding provisions for inclement weather.
“I absolutely support every bit of every youth program that we can have, but I want to hear from the administration, facilities, and the Athletic Department on is there an impediment? It was a very big deal when the field was so used on many, many occasions – we heard that it was unusable for our students,” said Muse.
Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Operations Howie Barber said the organizations carry their own insurance and advised the committee to be mindful of scheduling. “If you approve this request today, do it so that there is no conflict with eligibility days,” he said.
Burke’s opposition came into focus after ORR High School Principal Mike Devoll said that neither he nor Athletic Director Bill Tilden believes that ORYF’s use of the ORR football field would pose a detrimental effect on ORR’s own athletic programs. “They’ve been good neighbors. … When we close our field due to conditions, they close their practice, no questions asked,” said Devoll.
Harkening back to the failed push for synthetic turf, Burke said, “I just have to push back on that a little, Mike, because, as you know, a couple of years ago we had the support of the athletic director to try to put in a turf field because we felt that the overuse of the field had created unsafe playing conditions for our student-athletes. … What has changed since those previous conversations?”
Burke acknowledged COVID’s cancellation has given the field time to regenerate, but now that a full slate of regular activities has resumed, she probed for the missing element to an equation that would now make a youth football game schedule a safe addition to the grass field.
“I feel as though that the use by Pop Warner, this group that is making the request, is not going to impact the field. The rest needed is from high school use, bigger, stronger, faster players. We’re looking at a limited number of games here,” said Devoll.
Medeiros explained that, traditionally, youth football plays four games on a Sunday.
“At the time we were looking to turf – I would always be looking to turf because I believe it is the right surface for us – we have worked tirelessly to figure out other ways to use other fields to have less use on the fields,” said Tilden. “We have given it much more of a break, not just due to Covid, but by limiting the usage.”
Tilden reported that Facilities Director Gene Jones found a new fertilization program that has strengthened the multi-purpose field and that the youth football organization has been open to listening to scenarios that would limit the number of games played on the field.
“Do we still need turf? Yes, because all of the other fields are not where they need to be. But we are playing on those other fields to spread [the wear and tear] out,” said Tilden, crediting ORR Boosters Club president and boys lacrosse coach Justin Shay for his support. “We are in a better position, and I think this is the perfect opportunity to give [ORYF] a couple of chances to play. … This group from ORYF has been phenomenal to work with.”
Bryce Guilbeault, the ORR head football coach, said the relationship with ORYF is more like a partnership and that roughly 50 percent of the high school’s practice equipment was purchased by ORYF, which also used some of the high school’s equipment.
“Just from a financial standpoint, if Pop Warner decided to go to use another field somewhere, there would be some financial stress on the (high school) football program to buy thousands of dollars’ worth of pads and equipment,” said Guilbeault.
Buttressing her support for ORYF, ORR School Committee member Margaret McSweeny referenced Appendix A of the policy, saying that Old Rochester organizations are an integral part of the community and should not be forced to look to other towns for venues to hold their activities.
Committee member Jason Chisholm asked Medeiros to confirm the stress involved in playing a fully away schedule and asked her how ORYF has been impacted.
“After last season … many people came back saying, ‘Are we going to have to be traveling all season? Are we going to have to go to Rhode Island?’ We were worried about the beginning,” said Medeiros, who thanked Nelson for ensuring ORYF can at least practice locally.
Qualifying her opposition to allowing ORYF to play games on ORR’s football field by noting her son had a great experience playing for ORYF, Burke called ORYF a “great organization” and, her opinion in the matter, “no reflection” of her feelings about Pop Warner or ORYF.
“It’s just that the health of ORYF is not our responsibility; the health and safety of ORR student-athletes are. And I learned too much a few years ago to believe that, if the field has miraculously recovered, it’s now at a point where it can be used heavily by all types of groups,” she said. “In terms of setting a precedent, no, this doesn’t set a precedent. But I don’t know that there’s other community groups out there that don’t have equally strong arguments for why they would want to use it and why could we not just allow it to them.
“In terms of students not enrolling at ORR, I believe that part of the reason is they look at our fields and say, ‘That’s not where I want to be playing, that’s not safe.’ It’s a ripped-up field and it only takes one rain game to rip up that field.”
Burke said that if the committee were to approve ORYF’s request, a condition should be added that cancels games in the event of rain or snow. Burke said the field must be preserved for ORR football and lacrosse players and other student-athletes’ usage. She suggested ORYF meet with the Tri-Towns’ recreation departments and try to find a long-term solution at another location.
Medeiros interjected to note that the families she has spoken to in the ORYF organization are 100-percent in support of a turf field at ORR. “Many of them donated money (and time) towards the turf project; so, for me, with all due respect, it seems as though we are punishing a group of children for an adult decision,” she said.
Burke told Medeiros she appreciates her feelings and position, acknowledging that ORYF was the leader on the turf project. “It unfortunately didn’t work out, and we’re all dealing with the outfall from that,” she said, noting that ORYF is not being selected as the lone casualty. “The ORR students deal with the disappointment of that vote every day.”
Muse concurred with Burke that ORR is not the long-term solution for ORYF but said he is not opposed to the two game days requested. “It can be viewed as a small ask, but eight hours of kids on the field, there’s going to be wear and tear.”
The ORR School Committee voted to approve the Memorandum of Understanding for the ORR School District Agreement that completed its rounds of approval from all three of the Tri-Towns’ select boards. Special town meetings are scheduled in Rochester for October 18, Marion for October 19, and Mattapoisett for November 8.
The committee was reorganized during the September 15 meeting. Heather Burke was voted as the chairperson; Burke had acted as interim chair since Cary Humphrey’s retirement. Vice chair is Michelle Smith. Burke and Muse will be joined on the Budget Subcommittee by Chisholm and Matthew Monteiro.
The committee also voted to approve a non-AFS exchange student who was not named.
Devoll introduced new teachers for the high school and junior high including Caroline Cervera in world languages (Latin and Spanish) and Mary Caine, Crystal Gendreau, and Victoria Tutino in special education. He also introduced new paraprofessionals Kylie Faison, Mary Beth Mathieu, Collin Melo, Jessica Teixeira, Zachary Tilden, and Jessica Trombly, long-term substitute teacher Sertac Osdogru, cafeteria staff Paula Searles, Catrina Skapik, and Smith, and Athletic Department administrative assistant Lynette Lord.
“It’s really great to be back…. It’s been a great return to school,” said Devoll, who noted that the high school hosted its new senior class for a semi-formal event to kick off the year.
ORR Junior High Principal Silas Coehlner said the junior high held events prior to the year to orient families and students and credited Toni Bailey for her assistance.
Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Jannell Pearson-Campbell updated the committee on ORR’s new teacher induction program and onboarding process as nine new members were welcomed to the ORR School District on August 26. “One of the things we want to do is make sure our teachers are supported,” she said.
Katie Gray and Karen-Marie Harrington presented a Guidance Department evaluation of ORR. In addressing the committee, Gray said the traditional model for school counseling ends up serving students at both ends but tends to leave out the students in the middle. Their Comprehensive Developmental School Counseling Programs model strives to serve all students by using data and taking a more active role in collaborating with administrators and teachers to achieve a programmatic approach.
ORR’s counselors received rave reviews in several areas including academic support, students who are struggling, resources, college and career lessons for each level, continued involvement during the pivot to hybrid and remote learning models, a strong advance-placement program, and they were not involved in “inappropriate activities.”
Recommendations included hiring a guidance director, developing a comprehensive college, career, and civic readiness program, transitioning to a programmatic approach, strengthening counselors’ advocacy and leadership skills, and increasing the use of technology.
Burke said her “one big takeaway” is that the guidance director role is crucial in implementation of the program changes recommended in the evaluation.
ORR’s Open House will be held on Thursday, September 30, from 6:30 pm to 8:15 pm with one parent with student; masks are required.
Student representative Eddie Gonet told the committee a COVID-safe Homecoming will be held. Senior Sunrise was held at Silvershell Beach with approximately 75 students; a senior class visit to Ned’s Point is scheduled for October 1.
The next meeting of the ORR School Committee was not scheduled at adjournment.
ORR School Committee
By Mick Colageo