The Upper Freehold Regional School District Board of Education is moving forward with a plan to install an artificial turf playing field at the Allentown High School stadium. The turf field will replace an existing grass playing surface.
In a letter dated on June 29, board members said the project to replace the grass field at the high school stadium will be a priority as the district enters the 2020-21 school year. They said the cost will be covered by funds made available because the district was under budget in previous years.
According to Business Administrator Patrick Pisano, the turf field is estimated to cost under $1.43 million.
The letter from the board states that because district administrators concluded recent school years under budget, they are required by state law to allocate the money into the 2020-21 budget. The funds may only be allocated to certain line items and, according to the board, cannot be used to increase the general budget on an ongoing basis.
Board members expressed concern the district’s excess reserves might be seized by the state to close a budget gap. In 2010, they said, about $1 million that was intended for costs associated with the opening of the Stone Bridge Middle School was lost due to state aid reductions.
“We feel the best defense is to use the funds in a way that benefits our district and our kids before (those funds) are potentially taken away,” board members wrote. “We have considered how we can spend these funds in a way that complies with the strict criteria for their use and best serves the community.”
Superintendent of Schools Mark Guterl recommended that the turf field’s installation would currently serve the highest need of all the district’s potential capital improvement projects.
“Carefully considering the future long-term needs of our district, and given the most common critique he (Guterl) receives relates to the condition of our playing fields, we believe installing the field will positively impact the largest number of kids,” board members wrote.
“It will also provide us with a ‘first domino’ that allows for the future improvement of all fields in the district by providing the critical rest that is needed for their ongoing repair.
“Importantly, we are united as a board in ensuring we limit any future budget impact that may result from this project to the lowest amount possible, and we are confident we can complete the project with minimal long-term financial impact that in no way impairs the education of our students,” they wrote.
Board members said they are proceeding in a deliberate manner.
“The board’s athletic and facilities committees have evaluated different forms of turf and infill for both quality and cost,” they wrote. “Our finance committee has studied the best methods for payment as well.
“The entire board has taken multiple visits to other schools to both walk on their fields and discuss installation projects with their administrators, including older fields to discuss replacement. As a full board, we have studied the vast research connected to health and safety.
“We are now confident this project can both be prudently paid for and deliver its intended benefits,” board members continued. “Despite the current environment, we believe this is a very exciting development for our district. We hope you (residents) do, too. We remain committed to providing our students with the best possible resources we can provide.
“The installation of a new turf field could be a terrific way to welcome our students back to school in the fall. Prudent financial management has put us in this position and we intend to make certain our students benefit from it.”
According to the board, Allentown High School will become the 255th out of 377 high schools in New Jersey to install a turf field.
“We have spent six months researching this project from all angles, including multiple trips to other school districts that had turf fields,” board President Patrick Nolan said.
“One of the things that consistently came up was the versatility this type of field provides the district, both for athletics and other groups. We wanted to bring that kind of potential to our district as well.
“Our students and staff have had to endure a lot this year due to COVID-19. We are excited to have an opportunity to celebrate a new-look stadium when the kids return in the fall. We hope it provides a boost to everyone’s spirits and adds to their pride in our schools,” Nolan said.