2005-11-17 / Front Page

Town is responsible for school ball fields

By Dotti Farrington

The town is responsible for the playing fields at the Jamestown School, Town Solicitor Lauriston Parks told the Town Council Monday. The town Department of Parks and Recreation has jurisdiction for the operation and management of the fields, he said.

Finding out whether the school or the town was is in charge of the fields became the goal for a group of parents whose children play baseball and soccer. Last month, those parents told the Town Council that the playing fields were not being maintained, and that they were unable to determine who they should work with in order to prepare the fields for the next season and also to make long-term improvements that would require capital expenses.

To make the playing fields safe, the parents have pledged to raise funds through donations, and co-ordinate support for the town department that was responsible for maintaining the fields and would seek local tax dollars to pay for some of the needed work.

Parks said that the town owns the schoolyard land, totalling 21 acres, as well as the school buildings. But the management and control of the property was at issue. Law provides that the School Committee must provide for its facilities and equipment, the town solicitor pointed out.

Parks said the schools, according to School Superintendent Katherine Sipala, do not consider the playing fields to be part of the school’s facilities. Consequently, he ruled that the School Department is not responsible for the fields. Sipala provided a 1990 sketched map that shows the school buildings, adjoining playgrounds, and cross-campus path as school property, but the tennis courts, skateboard park, town forest, and fenced ball fields are shown as non-school property, Parks said.

No one provided data about how issues over field maintenance became unclear, according to the Parks’ presentation. Some council members, including Council President David Long, suggested that the low priority given to the town recreation budget over the years may have clouded the matter.

The group of parents said the issues have been brewing for several months and boiled into the public arena in recent weeks, in part because the councilors and educators discussed the unclear lines of responsibility over the playing fields at a public workshop in early October.

Bolles defends

Recreation Director Matthew Bolles provided a written summary of the work his department oversees, including at the townowned, 35-acre Fort Getty campground and the four-acre John Eldred Recreation Area, which has one full-sized soccer field and two smaller fields.

Bolles said the Lawn Avenue recreation facility, that doubles as the school athletic facility, has two soccer fields, three baseball diamonds used also for youth soccer, six tennis courts, one basketball court, and a skateboard park. He detailed his department’s annual pre-season ballfield preparations, some purchases such as bases and a portable backstop, and routine mowing and trash removal.

“All of the above has always been provided annually, despite the somewhat different impression which has been created lately,” Bolles said.

He pointed out that the addition of a middle-school baseball team “has complicated the situation somewhat, which puts a huge strain on the small parks and rec department crew.”

His crew has “a long list of other town properties to prepare and maintain in the spring. Baseball league responsibilities have always included raking infields between games, occasional hole filling, field lining, and policing dugouts and the general areas after each game, according to Bolles.

He also reported that his crew repairs fences, but one of the parent complaints was the poor condition of fences that the parents consider dangerous.

Cooperation sought

The councilors discussed the ruling and report with a goal of co-ordinating a list of upkeep needs and ways to deal with them in time for the next spring season, as well as long term project goals.

Council Vice President Julio DiGiando suggested that the town solicitor’s ruling be circulated to all appropriate town and school personnel so each would know about the scope of their authority.

The parents reported difficulty in determining who could or would authorize their purchase and installation of a scoreboard.

Councilman William Kelly promised to work with parents.

Councilor Barbara Szepatowski said the effort needs to include representatives of adult recreation needs, including the elderly, and she offered to work on those aspects.

Long and DiGiando suggested that a workshop be set no later than January so that data can be available for town budget preparations so the parents can start fund-raising.

Last month, the leaders of parents group pledged that they would raise enough money to make major repairs to the town’s ball fields if they could identify town responsibility for the fields.

Parents’ conditions

They promised to provide the money and the physical labor if:

• The council identified the authority the parents should deal with.

• That authority authorized the fund-raising,

• The town provided and clearly identify maintenance funds in the annual budget once the fields are fixed.

• The parents can fly fund-raising banners at the ball fields for at least two months.

Last month the councilors agreed by consensus that the council would authorize fundraising if it had the authority. That issue was not clear in Parks’ ruling and he was not present to discuss it.

The councilors said that the Zoning Board of Review has authority over signs and banners and the council could not intercede on zoning board matters. They noted that council permission was not needed to seek approval for signs or banners.

The School Committee had said it was “eager and willing to help clarify how to provide for upkeep of the fields at the schools . . . and to work together for solutions acceptable to all.”

The parents’ group agreed that they generally provide some maintenance every season, but this year they identified several capital cost items that are needed, including new fencing, scoreboards, and extensive landscaping.

The leaders of the group noted that they have a commitment for help from the University of Rhode Island landscape architecture students. They said they could also apply for grants and other funding if the ownership and authority issues are resolved. Councilor Kelly has been particularly active in working on grants on behalf of the town.

The schools long have charged the town fees for recreation department uses of its facilities with the expectation of providing maintenance, but the extent or quality of the maintenance has been questioned. One School Committee suggestion has been its willingness to eliminate fees in exchange for town maintenance of the facilities, either the gym, the fields, or both.

Primary parent leaders are Anthony J. Rafanelli, president of the Jamestown Baseball Association, and Chris Crawford, representing parents of youth soccer teams in the town who informally identify themselves as the “field improvement group,” organized last February.

“We will play baseball this spring” with or without town help, Rafanelli emphasized.

Last month, Crawford said that the field improvement group discussions have included concerns not only for young athletes, but also the interests of senior citizens who might be able to use appropriate tracks and fields. “We’ve looked at what ways we can contribute” as the parents undertake major private fundraising for improvements “on a large scale . . . to have first class recreational facilities,” Crawford told the council.

His group’s goals include updating existing fields, adding lacrosse fields if possible, adding an ice skating rink, and improving parking areas.

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