Field project inches forward

The campaign to replace the grass at Walter A. Phillips Field with artificial turf will require a calculated, $90,000 risk by the Ashland School District.

The hope is that the district will recoup every penny of that through fundraising, but until then the cost of producing the construction documents that contractors will eventually bid on will come out of the district’s construction funds budget, according to Superintendent Jay Hummel.

The decision to cover the initial costs in order to keep the project on schedule and avoid a “construction penalty” was sealed in a unanimous 5-0 vote during the Oct. 12 school board meeting at the Ashland City Council chamber. The move wrapped up a 90-minute discussion that included one failed motion and another revised version, removing a fundraising deadline that was initially set for Oct. 15.

Now, the project ignited by Ashland High School alum and Kansas City Royals pitcher Jeremy Guthrie’s $650,000 donation two years ago appears to be headed toward the bottom of the ninth, and Lisa James of James Consulting, who’s heading up the fundraising effort, expressed confidence that the district will reach its $1,225,000 fundraising goal in time to break ground next summer, as she explained to the board why the project is time sensitive.

“It’s like a row of dominoes and we’ve been lining them up, but we don’t want them all to fall,” James told the board. “That’s my opinion, but I know that it’s a difficult decision for you. There is some risk involved. I wish I had a magic wand and I could guarantee you that we’ll exceed or hit the target. I think we’re definitely in a great environment and a supportive community. We did the Ashland Arts Center in the middle of a recession and people thought we were crazy … but we did it.”

Ashland Schools Foundation executive director Susan Bacon, who is helping James fundraise, said Wednesday that donations to the project are now just shy of $950,000, although not all of that has been collected yet.

The goal is for the district to put the project out to bid in late January or early February, chose a contractor and break ground in early summer in order to have the field ready for the 2016-17 school year.

The district’s initial investment will cover the cost of drawing building specifications for a field that’s 65 yards wide, as well as specs for a thinner field, should ASD ultimately decide to go that route. Choosing a thinner, slightly cheaper design could jeopardize the entire project, however, since some of the donations are contingent upon the field’s width.

“That is, of course, a possibility,” Bacon said. “We are fundraising at this point for a 65-yard wide field. So we would need to make contact (with donors), and it’s going to have to be done very quickly because we’ll have to respond to bids. So I’m hoping that it’s just going to be a little bit of a no-brainer and we’re going to raise so much money that it’s not going to matter. That would be fabulous.”

Bacon added that she and James are both working hard to lock up both small, private bids and larger donations from corporations and foundations. The “Buy a Brick” campaign gives donors who contribute $250 and up a 4- by 8-inch brick (8-by-8 for donors of $750 and up) which will be placed somewhere “prominent” in the completed structure. Each brick will include a bronze plaque and a space for writing.

Donors are divided into clubs based on the size of their donations, and each club has perks associated with it. Those who donate between $1,000 and $4,999 qualify for the Turf Club, and are awarded free advertising in the game programs for the 2016-17 school year. Members of the Championship Club, for those who donate $100,000 or more, receive logo space on the wall in front of the visitors bleachers for five years, eight season tickets for football and soccer and four reserved parking spots for 10 years.

A complete list of the district’s donation programs can be found by following a link at ashlandschooolsfoundation.org.

At one point during last week’s meeting the board and the fundraisers appeared to be at odds over who should cover the initial costs of building specifications.

“If for some reason the thing doesn’t happen and there is no field built, the donations actually have to be returned,” Bacon said. “They were giving toward the turf field. They’re not giving toward the prep work.”

Board chair Jim Westrick countered by saying, “So you don’t want to put that money at risk just like we don’t. You’re having the same trouble we are. None of us want to put that money on the table.”

Later, Hummel explained that if the board voted to go forward with funding the initial construction costs, that money would not be pulled from the general fund.

“This would come out of construction funds that we presently have at this time, that’s where these dollars are being drawn from,” he said. “And that’s at risk. These are separate by the budget that was set last year. Those funds are set over four construction projects that need to be accomplished.

“Certainly then that puts at risk (construction projects) …but not class size and not teacher salaries.”

Board director John Williams’ initial motion would have extended the deadline by three months. After it did not receive a second, the five board members talked at length about the wording, eventually opting to drop the deadline all together.

Moments before Williams put forward a revised motion, Hummel explained that if the board opted not to approve funding the building specs the project would likely die.

Later, vice chair Eva Skuratowicz expressed apprehension.

“I think what makes me squirm,” she said, “is just putting forward more district money with no real absolute sense that we’re going to recoup it. We’re stewards of this money so we take this all very seriously and I appreciate that all of us actually are squirming because it means that we really care about our taxpayers’ money.”

Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.

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