Nonprofit Wants Hartford Track on Ballot

Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, January 13, 2018

Hartford — The thaw-and-freeze weekend weather forecast was unwelcome news for the group of residents racing to collect signatures to put a plan for a high school track in front of Town Meeting voters.

If Friends of Hartford Track, a nonprofit that’s been pushing the idea of a track for years, is successful in its petition drive, voters will be presented with a plan that would see the track built on the Hartford High School and Memorial Middle School campus next summer.

Sheila Hastie, who leads the nonprofit, said the group initially hoped to get the town’s elected officials to put the plan before Town Meeting voters, but a lack of response led them to rush to gather 435 signatures, the only other way to get the measure on the ballot.

“I understand both the School Board and Selectboard have a lot on their plates right now,” Hastie said. “They’re working on a budget that is very difficult. We’re hoping that by doing it this way, they don’t have to deal with that.”

Hartford School Board Chairman Kevin Christie said the body has not had a formal discussion on the merits of the Friends of Hartford Track proposal.

“The board hasn’t had a chance to address the issue in whole. Being that it is a private petition, we will address it if it comes to fruition,” Christie said.

With the petitions due on Thursday, Hastie said that a group of volunteers had planned to do the bulk of the signature-gathering at two school-sponsored basketball games and a hockey game over the weekend, but things got harder when the weather forecast caused the school district to cancel those events.

Some of the volunteers are students such as Daisy Phelps, a 15-year-old sophomore from Wilder who volunteered to gather signatures along with several other members of the high school track teams. Phelps said she and the other members of her team were training for their running events last week by sprinting around the hallways of the high school.

“Our coach says it’s around 300 meters,” Phelps said. “But you don’t get the same feel sprinting down the hallways of school as you would on a track.”

When the coach forwarded the team an email from Hastie looking for volunteers, Phelps jumped at the opportunity. For her, the stakes are very personal.

“Maybe by the time I’m a senior I could have a track at my school,” she said.

Phelps said she wasn’t intimidated at the thought of soliciting signatures from adults.

“The whole Girl Scout cookie thing, I’ve done,” she said.

As of Friday afternoon, she had gathered 17 signatures — 11 of them teachers, and the rest parents of herself or her friends.

She planned to go door-to-door in her neighborhood today — weather permitting.

The group’s efforts are the latest twist in a track-pursuit saga that extends back for 30 years. The issue has become more divisive in recent years; a 2013 $9 million bond was meant to fund a track along with other school and municipal projects, but poor cost estimates caused the Hartford School Board to sacrifice the track so that the other projects could go forward. Track backers kept pushing for more funding, but in 2014, voters twice rejected additional borrowing for a $3.2 million proposal that would have included a turf field.

Christie said the public would have to demonstrate an appetite to pay for the project before it would top the School Board’s priority list.

“At this point in time, we’re trying to continue to grow our academic and human resources within our programs for our students. And right now, we’re at a tipping point,” Christie said on Friday. “Do I see it happening right this minute without a lot of collaboration and direction from the community? Not really.”

Hastie and other track supporters say the idea of a track remains popular, but the 2014 rejections represented dissatisfaction with the poor calculations done by officials. This time, Hastie said, the public can have faith in a more rigorous process that’s laid out in the somewhat complex, three-question format Friends of Hartford Track is seeking to put on the ballot.

The first question asks whether voters will direct the School Board to spend up to $50,000 to design a track and field facility.

Hastie said the group has been working with Skip Weinbel, a track design consultant, who recommended spending up to $100,000 to map the soils of the proposed site and develop a design based on that data. Friends of Hartford Track has gotten a $25,000 matching grant from the Byrne Foundation and also has about $5,000 in its reserves to put toward the effort.

One of the issues that’s dogged the track has been the discovery that there are some heavy clay deposits on the proposed site. The clay makes drainage difficult and is costly to remove. Hastie said that spending money up front would allow the project to save money later by designing a track with the soil and other factors in mind.

The second proposed question asks voters whether the School Board should allow the $50,000 to be managed by a committee that would be made up of representatives from the town recreation department, school district, Friends of Hartford Track and the public. Hastie envisions that group forming more or less immediately, so that it could hire the professionals needed to complete the design work this summer.

One potential pitfall is that the language on the petition has not been vetted by lawyers. Hastie said the School Board declined to have its legal counsel look over the document and that she’s trusting the petition is worded well enough to communicate the will of the voters to the School Board.

Christie said the petition wording could prove to be problematic.

“There’s some problems with the structure of the petition,” he said. He declined to go into detail without a more formal review from the board, but said it has to do with “the way it’s worded, conceptually.”

The third question on the ballot would direct the School Board to take the design work done by the committee and use it to solicit construction bids. The cost dictated by the winning bid then would be presented to town voters in November during this year’s general elections. Construction would begin the following summer.

Hastie said that, years after she began actively advocating for a track, she’s ready to call it quits.

“I really do want this to move forward because this is my swan song,” she said. “If it moves forward, great, I will continue. If it doesn’t happen, or if we don’t get the signatures — six, seven years later? It’s time to move on.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.