Football Field Work Likely Forces Pinelands Graduation Indoors

Apr 11, 2018

The 2017-2018 school year has already been tough on Pinelands Regional School District students, and it is looking as if it won’t end on a happy note for seniors, either.

It is probable the Class of 2018 will have an indoor graduation ceremony and will then be spending the night in the high school, where this year’s Project Graduation will likely be staged.

The Pinelands Board of Education awarded a $1,793,150 contract to American Athletic Courts at its Monday evening work session meeting. The Vincentown-based business submitted the lowest of four bids for a package of athletic complex upgrades including a new sod football field, a resurfaced track, drainage improvements, and resurfacing of the tennis courts – improvements that were approved by the public in a January 2017 referendum.

The board took the rather unusual, although not unprecedented, step of taking official action at a work session instead of waiting for the next regular board meeting on Wednesday, April 18 because member Thomas D. Williams Jr., chair of the Building and Grounds Committee, urged quick action so that construction could begin as soon as possible, allowing time for the new sod field to take hold. The district had already announced that its track and field teams would be hitting the road sometime this spring and that its football teams would play an all-away schedule this fall. If there were delays, Williams warned, construction could spread into the 2018-2019 school year, playing havoc with yet another sports season. And there have already been delays – the district had hoped to award a contract a couple of months ago.

But some members of the public weren’t happy with the haste.

Why not, Kim Pharo asked, wait until October or even November to start the work on the track and football field? That way Pinelands home football games could be played early in the fall season, and surely the field could take hold by the next year.

“Take a step back and evaluate the situation,” she urged the board.

Another, and perhaps larger, concern to many was the June  graduation. It had already been announced that graduation would take place on Friday, June 22 and that the ceremony would take place indoors in the school auditorium because the football field would be unavailable.

Acting Superintendent Cheryl Stevenson said high school Principal Shaun Banin had been approached by representatives of the student council who didn’t want an indoor graduation. They suggested renting bleachers for the soccer field, or finding another venue. But Stevenson said Banin had received a $39,000 estimate for bleacher rental. Meanwhile, Stockton University would charge $12,000 to rent its field while Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City would charge $18,000, and people attending the graduation ceremonies would have to pay for parking. So, she said, the administration recommended graduation in the auditorium.

When asked if there was a space problem, Stevenson said no.

“It is not really a size issue; it is just that the kids love outside.”

The board’s discussion took place before discussion on the American Athletic Courts bid. Despite his later recommendation about the contract, Williams said he wasn’t in favor of an indoor graduation ceremony.

“I still want something outside, due to the kids going through so much this year,” he said, adding there were “tons of bleachers” at Tip Seaman County Park. “They’ve used our facilities, so it should be reciprocated.”

Board President Susan Ernst joined the conversation.

“How badly will our football field be ripped up?” she asked. “I’m envisioning a dust storm.”

“I don’t think it would be possible for the football field,” answered Williams.

As the time for the later vote on the field renovation approached, another board member, Jeffrey Bonicky, warned he’d vote against awarding the contract without knowing a timeline for the work. He said he wanted the field available for graduation.

“Let’s table it until next week,” said Bonicky.

District Business Administrator Stephen Brennan warned that delay would be risky.

“I don’t know how long the bid can remain open,” said Brennan.

“I can’t believe we’re talking about this” (delaying the contract), said board member Kim Hanadel. “We’re so behind.” (in the referendum process).

Another member, Betti Anne McVey, reminded the board that the last two graduation ceremonies had been moved inside because of weather. So maybe the discussion was moot.

“It could rain,” said McVey.

Williams recommended the board approve the contract, and he could then have discussions with the engineer and contractor as to the timeline. Many of the members who voted yes said they did so in deference to Williams’ recommendation.

In the end the vote was 8-1, with only Bonicky opposed.

So, as of now graduation will be an indoor affair. But that could change if an affordable alternative were to be found.

Project Graduation, though, will almost certainly be an on-campus event.

Pinelands has been holding Project Graduation at St. Francis Center on Long Beach Island for a number of years from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. Its goal is to entertain students in a positive and healthy environment and to give seniors one last celebration as a group before they move on to the next chapter of their lives. Co-sponsored by the Pinelands Education Association, the night provides food and a variety of activities such as swimming, volleyball, basketball and other games. Students also have the opportunity to earn prizes or win auction items.

This year, however, graduation was moved back into late June because of snow days and days of school missed because of problems caused by the roofing project at the high school. So Pinelands lost its date at the St. Francis Center, and it wasn’t available on June 22. Other options have been cost-prohibitive in the past.

— Rick Mellerup

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