Hartford Track, Field Face the Ax

Hartford — For a new track and turf field to be constructed alongside the planned field house at Hartford High School, one of two things needs to happen by September: Either $1.5 million must be raised, in grants or donations, to offset the cost, or enough residents need to petition the School Board to put the measure back on the ballot for another bond vote.

That was the unanimous decision made by the School Board at its meeting Wednesday night, when board members rejected a scaled-back design of the field house presented by architect David Laurin. The cutbacks in cost, they said, were relatively minor and out of proportion with the cutbacks in design and function.

The results make “quite clear that you can save money by basically chopping off a third of the building,” but it “isn’t commensurate with what you lose,” said School Board member Peter Merrill, who made the motion to postpone a final decision until September pending a significant increase in “funding” or “political capital.”

If neither of those scenarios takes place by a September board meeting, the board plans to approve a $1.55 million design for the field house that includes a weight room, locker rooms and educational space.

That will eat up the remaining money from the school’s portion of a $9 million bond passed at Town Meeting in 2013, with no money left over for the track and field, which could be pursued in the future — perhaps to the disappointment of supporters who have rallied around a new track and field for years.

Indeed, there may already be a slight shortfall in funds for the full field house design alone, as Director of Finance Jim Vezina said Wednesday the school has roughly $1.375 million remaining from the bond, slightly less than the $1.5 million that had been anticipated.

School Board Chairman Kevin Christie said he was confident that enough money for the field and track could be raised by September, as DeBalsi has been working with a grant writer and track and field supporters are also making efforts.

Should $1.5 million be raised by September, that will represent about half of the cost of the track and field, which is estimated at about $3 million.

The district has already missed the construction season for this summer because contractors have largely filled their schedules.

In a split vote, the board earlier this month had instructed Laurin and Superintendent Tom DeBalsi to come up with the scaled-back design to see if they could cut enough costs to leave a significant chunk of money to get the track and field off the ground.

The board had asked for two new designs — one for $750,000 and one for $1 million — but Laurin and DeBalsi presented only one for $1.15 million. Many of the significant costs, they said, are constant no matter the size of the building, such as utility work, durable building materials and initiating construction.

Former School Board member Jeff Arnold, who spoke during public comment in favor of abandoning the new field house and instead renovating an existing bath house, rejected that argument, saying he found it hard to believe that the district could get that much nicer of a building for only about $400,000.

But DeBalsi and School Board members repeatedly spoke to the need for a long-lasting building. The building is not extravagant, they said, but built to stand the wear and tear of athletes for decades to come.

The district has “paid dearly,” DeBalsi said, for previous corner-cutting that has come back to haunt them during projects. School Board member Lori Dickerson said she has been told that Hartford is a “Chevy kind of town; we are not a Volvo group,” and she feels that “this is not a Volvo building.”

“And I don’t want to say anything bad about Chevys because I drive a Chevy ... and I drive it because it lasts,” she said.

School Board member Paul Keane continued to express concerns that the board’s handling of the bond money, including the track and field, had driven away popular football coach Mike Stone, who will not return next season.

Keane made an amendment to Merrill’s motion, which was ultimately accepted, to instruct the superintendent to explore the possibility of taking weight room equipment out of storage and putting it either into two classrooms, the bus garage — which was the idea of resident and bus driver Mike Scelza — or other areas.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.