PORTSMOUTH — “We have to ask ourselves in this day and age: Do we want a tennis team? Do we want a track team?” School Committee Chairman David Croston asked the Town Council Monday night.
He got his answer when the council, in a 4-2 vote, added $2.5 million to the school budget for this fiscal year, the vast majority of which will pay for major upgrades to the high school’s track, athletic field and tennis courts. Another project, for fire code upgrades at Hathaway School, is estimated at $750,000.
Most of the money for the projects will come from the School Department’s fund balance; another $285,000 will come from impact fees that are earmarked for educational use. The PHS Athletic Boosters raised about $650,000 for the athletic upgrades.
Mr. Croston said 40 percent of the cost of the Hathaway fire code upgrades, estimated at $750,000, will be reimbursed by the state. Another 40 percent of $350,000 of the tennis court project, estimated at a total of $456,000, will also be reimbursed. There is no reimbursement on the track and turf projects, he said.
“If we do not do this at this time, I fear budgets will catch up to us,” said Mr. Croston, pointing out the woeful conditions of some of the outdoor athletic facilities at PHS. Aside from some surface improvements, there have been no upgrades to the football field, track and tennis courts since they were built, he said.
The track is pitted and “hard as asphalt,” said Mr. Croston, and the tennis courts have long cracks that are at least a half-inch wide. Unless the tennis courts are fixed, he said, the school’s tennis teams may not be able to host home matches in the future. In addition, many members of the community use the courts, said Mr. Croston, who pointed out that the town lacks a recreation department.
The upgrade of the athletic field would include the installation of artificial turf, which Mr. Croston said would not only save on maintenance costs but attract more groups and colleges interested in renting it out. Although the turf would be guaranteed for eight years, it could last 12 to 15 with regular maintenance, he said, adding that he’d like to see $250,000 raised for a trust fund covering maintenance work.
Council member Keith Hamilton said he was in favor of the upgrades. “I think it’s high time that our students and our athletes get the best,” said Mr. Hamilton, noting that he saw a PHS tennis athlete hurt her wrist after tripping on one of the courts due to its poor surface.
Charter violation alleged
Joseph Robicheau, a former Town Council president, objected to the spending, saying that the town charter does not allow funds to be added to the budget already approved by the council.
Town Solicitor Kevin Gavin, however, said the council has the authority under the charter to amend the budget.
Council member David Gleason said the school fund balance should be used to cover recent decreases in state educational aid. “If we spend this money we don’t have this nest egg to rely on,” he said.
Mr. Croston, however, said fund balance money should be spent on capital improvements, not operational expenses. “It’s a wise investment and a wise use of this one-time money,” he said.
Voting against Mr. Croston’s request were Mr. Gleason and council member Elizabeth Pedro, who said while she agreed with the fire code upgrades and the tennis court improvements, the money being requested for the track and turf projects was excessive.
Mr. Gleason agreed, and attempted to amend the main motion so the council could vote individually on each project. That motion failed, 4-2.