By ERIN ROLL
Watchung students need a sufficiently-sized playground, but Montclair’s lacrosse teams also need a regulation-sized field.
That is the balance that school district officials are trying to strike.
Thirty feet will be taken of the Watchung Playground with the overhaul of Watchung Field, a long-delayed project with an expected $1.3 million price tag. District officials are seeking options with the field overhaul so regulations games can be played there, while still ensuring Watchung school students still have enough playground space.
The only regulation sport that can be played on the field at this time is field hockey, which requires a minimum length of 100 yards or 300 feet.
The intention has been to add an additional 30 feet to the field length to make it long enough for regulation lacrosse.
According to U.S. Lacrosse, the regulation size for a unified youth and high school lacrosse field is 64,800 square feet: 360 feet long and 180 feet wide, or 120 yards long and 60 yards wide.
The existing field is roughly 59,400 square feet: 330 feet long and 180 feet wide, or 110 yards long and 60 yards wide. The proposed work area for Watchung Field, including the portion of the playground, is 77,500 square feet: roughly 60 yards wide and 143 yards long, or 180 feet wide and 431 feet long.
Watchung parents have been circulating a document showing satellite photos of all seven elementary school playgrounds. The Watchung playground, if the field work went ahead, would be drastically reduced in size and formed into an awkward L-shape, the overview shows.
The proposed design for the field, including the encroachment of the playground, has been in the works since October 2017, when the district’s architects presented a list of capital projects. That design plan for Watchung Field showed the field being expanded to cover part of the playground and some of its equipment.
In March, the board of education began accepting bids for Watchung Field, but emphasized that provisions would have to be made for the playground before work started on the field.
At a subsequent meeting on April 15, Watchung parents criticized the proposed expansion and encroachment on the playground.
Linda Bowers co-founded Team Up Montclair three years ago. The group seeks to be “the third pillar” between the township and the schools on providing safe and functional athletic spaces.
Team Up Montclair signed a memorandum of understanding with the board of education in November 2018, to work together deciding how fields and athletic facilities should be used and upgraded.
Watchung Field is unique among sports fields in Montclair in that it is located on a school’s grounds, unlike Woodman and Fortunato, said Bowers, who is also involved with the Lacrosse Club of Montclair, and has two children who went through the school system.
Over the years, the school and the district have gone back and forth on whose jurisdiction it falls under.
Watchung Field, because of its size, is a single-use field, while Woodman and Fortunato can be used for more than one sport. The hope is that the field can be expanded to a length where the girls’ lacrosse teams can use the field for state-regulation games.
Allowing the girls’ lacrosse teams to use Watchung Field would take some of the pressure off of Woodman and Fortunato, she said, and make it easier and more efficient to schedule not only practices and but matches as well.
But Brian Anderson, parent of two children at Watchung, emphasized the importance of recess and playtime to a child’s physical and mental well-being.
“For our kids…that space becomes almost critical to how they behave when they’re at school, when they’re at home,” he said. “Five hundred squeezed into a smaller space…is something we should take responsibility for.”
Montclair’s sports fields are heavily used with youth leagues, high school leagues, adult leagues, non-profit teams and for-profit teams all vying for times.
Lacrosse Club of Montclair Will Rosebro said the teams that he oversees have been working with other teams, especially girls’ lacrosse teams, for more organized scheduling of the field space. But he said, teams often compete to get playing time on the fields.
“In the end, if we do this right, it could be a win-win for all the kids,” Rosebro said.
The field is at the point of failing, Bowers said. Parents are especially concerned with safety due to the field’s condition, raising the risk of concussions and foot and knee injuries. “It’s the end of [the field’s] life. They need to be re-done,” Bowers said.
Tom Schmitt, the president of the Lacrosse Club of Montclair, is also a parent of Watchung students. He recommended that sweetgum tree near the playground, that posed a potential safety risk, could be removed to allow for more space.
The field work came up for discussion at the April 15 Board of Education meeting, where several parents said that they had not been involved in the discussion until very recently.
Parent Jonathan Bellack said his children are being asked to give up some of their playground space for the benefit of athletes using the field.
“The convenient narrative here is that there are competing interests between Watchung Elementary School parents and MHS student-athletes. That’s inaccurate,” said Joe Kavesh, BOE vice president and board liaison to Team Up Montclair. “Everyone can get what they want if we do this the right way and are on the same page. Watchung students deserve an updated and safe playground, not the size of a postage stamp. Likewise, our student-athletes work extremely hard and are deserving of modernized and safe athletic fields.”
The field was last overhauled 15 years ago, and it is alleged that the field was shortened to its current length, based on a decision from school administrators at the time. District officials would not comment on previous field work.