By Nicole Bucka
The views expressed here are my own and are not an official communication from the East Greenwich School Committee.
Each year at budget belt-tightening time, the Town Manager refers to the school district as a “department of the town” along with police, fire, public works, etc., so why when we receive 3.9 million in American Rescue plan funds related to COVID recovery isn’t the school district still a “department of the town”? I am writing today in support of Town Councilor Mike Zarrella’s comment at a recent Town Council meeting that we consider the use of some of these funds to address the needed athletic field updates [Editor’s note: In particular, Councilor Zarrella was referring to the turf on the EGHS Carcieri Field, which is more than 10 years old.]
I applaud the Town Manager’s strategy to use of the American Rescue Plan funds on infrastructure. This is a wise strategy that will benefit our community for years to come as well as aid in our COVID recovery. Some might think it makes sense that the school district is left out of the town’s fund use because the schools get their own funds, but while the school district is slated to receive similarly named funds, ESSER III American Rescue Plan (markedly less – the amount is tied to our number of low income students which is impacted by our town’s housing decisions).
In addition to the relatively small amount, the district’s funds are similarly subject to strict rules for use. The funds are for student-centered needs such as summer/extended learning time, student academic and social emotional supports in school, indoor air quality, and remote learning technology needs.
The need for athletic field updates has come up repeatedly over the years. It is cost we have forecasted, advocated for, but when budgets require cuts and prioritization, teaching and learning (statutory obligations) take priority over athletic fields, so needed updates and repairs remain. A similar dynamic is happening with the school district’s American Rescue Plan funds, but the town’s American Rescue Plan funds present another opportunity.
The fields are a community resource benefiting everyone in this community, young and old. They generate revenue that reduces the tax burden. Our parks and recreation department, community athletic organizations, and residents use the athletic fields adding to the value of our town as a desirable community. As a result of COVID, outside spaces for community use are more important than ever as we “take it outside.” Children and adults alike benefit physically and emotionally from being outdoors, the exercise, community moral boosting sports, and events like dances and graduations. Field deterioration, in contrast, presents a safety issue. If a student or community member is hurt on turf we didn’t maintain, is the town liable? The school district? In the end, it all comes from the same money, residents, our taxes. Let’s not use our tax dollars to pay lawyers because of liability reactively when we can use it proactively to maintain our beautiful town.
Over the years I have seen much back and forth regarding “who owns” the athletic fields (the cost/upkeep) – the town? The school district? I believe other residents may agree when I say, who cares? If the accounting falls under the school department or under parks and recreation, who cares? All department costs end up in our taxes, so clearly these debates are about something else. If we don’t upgrade the athletic fields now as part of Take It Outside/COVID infrastructure with relief dollars, those costs will be in school department budget soon enough and then we will be arguing about that. Here is an opportunity for a win-win.
Please consider the athletic facilities as part of the infrastructure East Greenwich could support with its 3.9 million in American Rescue plan funds.
Nicole Bucka was elected earlier this month to serve as a member of the EG School Committee.