By Sarah Swenson, editor-in-chief

At a select board meeting in September, the Nantucket Public School system proposed the ninth step of their “Campus Wide Master Plan”, a twelve-step plan to completely overhaul the campus with a series of improvements that began in its planning stages in 2013. They have asked the town for 16.4 of the necessary 17.5 million dollars for this phase, which includes a new synthetic field hockey/lacrosse/soccer field, an expanded ADA compliant grandstand and press box, five tennis courts, a new natural grass varsity baseball field, additional campus parking spaces, and ​​a 400-meter synthetic track, wrapping around Vito Capizzo field, which will also be getting a newly lighted turf ground. For this request to pass, it will need a majority “yes” vote at the next annual town meeting, which will be on May 10th, 2022.

Diane O’Neil, Director of Facilities and Grounds for the Nantucket Public Schools, says they have an “urgent need” to update their playing fields, stands, and parking areas. The high school’s fields were built in the late 1950s, the Backus Lane fields in 2008. Since then, enrollment has increased by 398 students, from 1278 to 1676, and engagement in sports, particularly by female students, has increased drastically, placing greater stress on the fields.

Members of the Select Board voiced their concerns over the high price tag on these improvements after the proposal. Town Manager Libby Gibson explained that though the school’s need was indisputable, “there are a lot of much higher number capital projects on the horizon for the town overall… the thought was, could any of them be combined for school/community use to reduce costs?”

Concerns have also been raised about the choice to focus on a sports facility. The plan was put on pause once before, in 2014, when enrollment numbers in the lower grades necessitated the building of the Intermediate School, but after this step was added to the plan and the building was completed, the school returned to the original plan. Constructing a new school, or adding a piece to the current schools is listed on the plan as a potential non-numbered step.

With several floating teachers—teachers without their own classrooms, who navigate from class to class with their entire array of supplies on a wheeled cart—and others who have their own classrooms but are crammed some 3 to a room for planning periods, Principal Mandy Vasil admitted that “it sounds like it’s a backward plan” to build sports facilities before expanding school space.

The current high school enrollment has not increased much in recent years, but is up significantly since the building of the high school, and is expected to continue to increase. According to the previous superintendent in an interview with the Cape Cod Times, the school was built for 450 students, and, with its current population of 533 students, it is expected to rise to surpass this number by over 200 students by the year 2050.

However, O’Neil explains that the enrollment numbers are “almost the same as they were in 2018” and any momentary inflation is due to a “bubble” passing through the middle school—namely, the 149 student 8th-grade class. She did emphasize the existence of a plan that had been in the works for many years for a new school— the aforementioned non-numbered step to the plan.

Vasil voiced her opinion that perhaps adding a new wing to the high school should be part of the plan. She explained that the school has been facing challenges with its science department, and currently has its science wing spread across multiple floors to accommodate for the need for at least sinks in every science class that hopes to perform experiments. The school is trying to make sure every science class has an up-to-date classroom, with lab-safe tables and sinks for experiments.

“If we could build a wing, and it was for the science department, then we could build it with all [the updated lab configurations] there, and if we built a science wing that had six classrooms that were labs for science teachers, that would open up six classrooms for us,” Vasil commented. “My opinion is, I would love to see if we could do that. I don’t think that’s part of the master plan… but I would love to be able to see something like that happen.”

There are currently no plans for a science wing addition to the high school in the master plan, but according to Vasil, the high school will need two fully equipped and functioning chemistry labs by next year because of the large size of rising classes.

O’Neil said that there is no space to currently build a new wing, and for now, the focus is on drawing support for step nine, which she is “cautiously optimistic” about getting approval in the 2022 town meeting.

The support of students on sports teams is essential, but reactions have been mixed.

Junior Evan Keeler, a Guard on the Nantucket Whalers varsity Football team, noted that the grass fields the team plays on currently do get muddy and hard to play on when it rains; turf fields could be a way to solve this problem. O’Neil agreed. With an athletic program that hosts on average 30% more athletes than the state average, she believes that the school’s sports fields are overused. A fact sheet created to explain this ninth step of the plan and convince people to vote for it mentions how this wear and tear necessitates high upkeep costs.

Data on turf fields is inconsistent, some studies saying it is safe, some saying that there are actually higher rates of injuries on synthetic grass. However, consistently, turf fields have been shown to decrease water usage and upkeep costs.

Still, football players hold some reservations. “Right now the field is… workable,” said Keeler. He explained that the high costs of installing turf, and the time it could take out of the season may outweigh the benefits of a stabler surface on rainy days in his opinion: “It would take so much effort for such a minimal increase in quality.”

O’Neil admitted that this project has been a long time coming, and a lot of work, but that with each step forward in the plan, she has felt the hard work pay off: “most of this work has been done after-hours or done as volunteer work. None of this has been simple yet it is extremely rewarding to see each phase through to fruition.” 

The aforementioned fact sheet also explains the reasoning for the update to the school’s track. The uneven oval track around the football field is made of cinder, and is the last in Massachusetts to remain this way. Members of the cross country team, who practice running on this surface, feel that installation of synthetic ground will make it easier for them to run, and reduce the risk of injury.

“When it rains there are puddles everywhere and the gravel mixed with potholes makes for a dangerous combo for competitions there,” explained junior Kipp Buccino, a member of the school cross country team. 

He went on to add that with a synthetic track, the school may be able to form a track team again: “We’ve been trying to get a spring track team together for a couple years but the track we have right now is not the best for racing… I would definitely be interested, and we’ve had other kids, members of the current [cross country] team or otherwise, say that they’d be interested in joining the team if it was speed and sprinting rather than endurance (which is what most of cross country is based on).”

With mixed reactions from students about the plan, and concerns about money and prioritization, the plan will face a challenging road to win the majority vote in the spring. But many are already on board. The school board and others who support the plan are determined to gather the support it needs.

O’Neil firmly stated: “The magnitude of use of our fields take is no longer sustainable. This phase of the Master Plan is critical to moving forward with completing the rest of the phases… The time is now for our athletic fields project to make way for a new future school in the coming years.”

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