Hearing on revised five-year school plan draws support for turf, band

Published 7:41 pm Thursday, December 22, 2022

Speakers at a Dec. 8 public hearing on the Isle of Wight County School Board’s latest proposed five-year capital improvements plan argued for moving up the timeline for replacing Smithfield High School’s grass football field with artificial turf, and a long-awaited expansion of the school’s band room.

The current plan under consideration lists replacing the 1960s-era Westside Elementary as the school division’s No. 1 priority. The School Board had held a September hearing on an earlier draft, which had listed the turf project for the 2023-24 school year and Westside not starting until 2025-26.

Of the 17 speakers, 10 advocated for the turf, among them Smithfield High’s head junior varsity boys soccer coach, Lawrence Leslie.

Leslie urged the School Board to bring Smithfield High’s athletic fields “into the 21st century.” The Virginia High School League, which serves as the state regulatory agency for public school sports, instituted a new rule following Smithfield High’s 2021 winning of its first-ever state soccer title, which now requires a school to have an artificial turf field in order to be eligible to host a future state tournament. The rule would effectively disqualify Smithfield High from hosting the championship as a home game were its team to again make the state finals, Leslie said.

“Our facilities are not something our kids are proud of,” added Smithfield High Athletic Director Patrick Dulin, who noted Isle of Wight and New Kent counties are the only school systems in the Bay Rivers District to still use grass football fields.

Another five speakers pushed for band room renovations, which the current plan lists in last place among eight projects.

“The band room is still too small for our students. … The decibel levels are very high,” said Tiffany Walker, the mother of a current band member.

Charles Shelor, another band parent, noted that the proposed renovation had been on the drawing board for years. As of November 2020, according to past reporting by The Smithfield Times, the plan at the time had called for knocking down the wall between the band and chorus room to give the band more space, and to move the chorus to an area being used as an art classroom. The renovations were estimated to cost $2 million to $2.4 million as of that year.

“We are the community band for Smithfield,” Shelor said, noting the band’s then-upcoming performance in the Dec. 10 Smithfield Christmas Parade.

Volpe Boykin of Carrsville urged the board to consider the impact on the county’s real estate tax rate that replacing Westside would have.

“You’re going to be paying hundreds if not thousands of dollars a year more in taxes,” Boykin said.

Lewis Edmonds of Windsor then called upon the board to rethink its desired location for Westside’s replacement, which is currently planned for land adjacent to the existing Smithfield High School and Smithfield Middle School complex on Turner Drive.

“Traffic is already terrible there,” Edmonds said.

Westside currently houses grades 4-6. School officials had initially proposed replacing Westside with a grades 5-7 middle school, with the idea that fourth grade would move from Westside to Carrollton Elementary. But even if the school system were to move some of Carrollton’s population to the new Hardy Elementary slated to open in 2023, it still wouldn’t free up enough space to move Westside’s more than 150 fourth graders, school officials now say.

According to Deputy Superintendent Dr. Christopher Coleman, the School Board has until March to present the county’s Board of Supervisors with a final plan, which will then be factored into the county’s overall five-year plan for funding large school-related and non-school expenses.

“Items that we put on the CIP might go against a fire truck, might go against an ambulance,” Coleman said.

Rather than vote on the existing plan, Board Chairwoman Denise Tynes proposed instead forming a committee that could put a new plan together and argue for it in front of the supervisors. The supervisors, Tynes said, “will be the ones we will need to go to to get the extra funding.”

“I’m hurting right now to know that this is going on in Isle of Wight County; this is not a poor county and it should not be going on,” Tynes said.

Board member John Collick, however, said he would need “written justification” for everything in the plan to support it.

“We want to know exactly why, for instance, the turf field should be No. 1, so we can argue that in front of the Board of Supervisors,” Collick said. “If I can’t argue it, I can’t support it.”

Newly-elected board member Jason Maresh agreed a committee was warranted, and speculated that had the school system had prioritized the turf and band room at the expense of postponing Westside, the board would have heard an outcry from the public on why Westside should be a higher priority.

Board member Mark Wooster, also newly elected, reiterated claims he’d made at the September hearing regarding studies having shown turf to be more likely than grass to result in player injuries.

A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, citing that “synthetic turf surfaces do not release cleats as readily as natural turf,” found that “play on synthetic turf resulted in a 16% increase in lower extremity injuries per play than that on natural turf.” The National Football League’s official injury reports from 2012 to 2018 further showed that non-contact knee injuries occurred at a 32% higher clip and non-contact foot or ankle injuries were 69% more likely on artificial fields, according to Associated Press reporting.

Vice Chairman Michael Cunningham said the board should come up with criteria for ranking a project at the top of its priority list versus the bottom, and urged residents to attend the meeting when the plan goes to the Board of Supervisors.

“I want to see the room so full that people have to go out in the hallway; that’s how you get to them,” Cunningham said. “That’s the only way we’re going to make this happen, because money is tight.”