- Associated Press - Sunday, November 2, 2014

TORRINGTON, Conn. (AP) - An athletic field is meant to be a symbol of competitiveness but also good sportsmanship. But the new artificial turf fields behind Torrington High School have focused more on the competitiveness, pitting some Board of Education members against the city and turf committee in charge of its construction.

The artificial turf and larger track is expected to be completed this week following months of construction that began in the spring. The first game has been planned with the girls soccer team playing visiting Watertown.

The project is state-funded through a $2.9 million state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection grant secured by state Rep. Michelle L. Cook, D-Torrington.

Immediately after the grant was announced in July 2013, board members questioned the urgency of the grant when there are other needs that the school district has.

There was a contentious meeting between the board and turf committee members months later and more tense moments during the turf building committee meetings, of which the board chairman, Kenneth P. Traub, was a member. Traub stepped down earlier this year following a particularly tense meeting exchange that he had with turf building committee co-chairman Mario Longobucco.

The field is near completion. The new rubberized turf shines like green velvet. The markings are similar to a National Football League field with the numbers painted on the field. The new track is larger than the previous one, making it eligible to host track and field invitationals. A new scoreboard hovers above with the names of Glen and Kathy Aeschliman, a local couple who died and was active in youth sports during their lives.

“Many board members are thrilled we’re going to get an upgrade. It’s a great (field) and a good thing for the town,” Traub said. “It was a divisive issue because we had so many major problems that we needed funding for, we didn’t feel (the field) was the most urgent need of $2.7 million.”

An additional $200,000 was secured through grant money for the field to bring the total to $2.9 million.

The process to get the field grant started in March 2013 when Cook said she spoke to the superintendent about finding grant money for the athletic field. The superintendent referred Cook to Michael McKenna, the high school’s athletic director.

McKenna told Cook about the turf committee, which formed in 2007 to work on developing a new field, she said. The committee had been lead by Ed Arum, a former school district official.

“I think for me, everything was in the best interest of the community, students, athletes …for something to be proud of,” Cook said.

The rush to complete the track prompted comments by some board members that the turf project was an attempt to help Cook’s reelection this year.

“I think that’s short-sighted,” Cook responded. “They don’t know who I am. They need to figure out who Michelle Cook really is. This won’t be the last thing I do to put the community in a forward direction.”

Even as the turf field nears completion, tensions don’t appear to be subsiding. The board’s budget committee recently denied a request to pay for netting behind the new visiting bleachers and a small wooded area that boarders Route 8 North.

Traub said the board does not have money for the $11,700 in its budget because the board is set to make other improvements to the high school that have been mandated by the state. Torrington High School was cited for Americans with Disabilities Act violations in 2012. The board is staggering the renovations over several years. The improvements to the athletic field complex will remediate some of those issues.

The board also noted that they were told the project would not cost the school district any money. The board has long known that it needed to replace its main athletic field, which serves soccer and football, and the track and it had been in its capital budget for years.

The field wasn’t flat but concave with a hump along the middle of the field. There were drainage covers on the field and track was six lanes and in disrepair.

But like so many projects in tight school budgets, the project was pushed off.

Now, the project moves to maintaining the field. The board’s budget committee is meeting on Wednesday to discuss the cost for the district to maintain the field.

The district currently spends about $27,000 to maintain the field but turf committee members say that cost will now go down with the new field.

The field does require maintenance. Instead of mowing grass, the grant included a machine that cleans the tiny rubber balls on the field.

Torrington’s grant included the cost of equipment to clean the field and Cook said the custodians have been trained on how to use the device.

Thomas Moore, principal at Wethersfield High School, said the school spends “about the same” amount of money to maintain its turf field now compared to when the fields were grass. He’s hoping that good maintenance will help the school expand the 12-year shelf life of the turf by an additional two years.

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