By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Some Watchung Elementary School parents are disputing the Montclair Public School district’s official assessment that the school’s playground would gain 2,000 square feet when it and the field next to it are renovated.
In 2019, the Board of Education approved plans to renovate and expand Watchung Field — which high school students use for lacrosse and field hockey — by cutting into the space currently used by the playground. Work was expected to commence on May 31, but was put on hold for a week while district officials talked with parents concerned the field would get 70 feet longer, at the expense of the playground. Work then began on June 7.
The field has been in need of renovations after it suffered heavy damage during a rainstorm in August 2018, lifting and displacing the turf’s infill layer. The expansion would also allow the field to be used for regulation lacrosse games.
On Thursday, June 17, the district released a playground fact sheet that stated the playground would gain 2,000 square feet.
According to the fact sheet, the existing playground has an 8,000 square foot mulch area, which would be 10,659 square feet once the project is complete — a difference of 2,659 square feet. A 2,855 square foot gaga pit (a play area for a version of dodgeball) would be relocated to a grassy area to the rear.
But the fact sheet also says the project would remove a 7,800 square foot asphalt area, and a 3,287 square foot paver patio seating area.
Parent Henry Neff, part of a Watchung Playground Committee formed in 2019 to advocate for the playground, said he “wasn’t a math major but it looks to me like the new ‘playground area’ is 8,428 square feet smaller than it was before, and considerably more crowded with limited ingress/egress, compromised sight lines for supervision and without a single shade tree remaining — the tree being felled [June 17] after we were assured [by Principal Patrick Krenn] it would remain .”
Neff recently told Montclair Local Athletic Director P.J. Scarpello recently measured the athletic field at 109 yards long (on the sides parallel to N. Fullerton Avenue) and 59.6 yards wide “turf to turf,” which includes a safety buffer of 5 yards at each end. The playing area itself was 99 yards long — too little for regulation lacrosse.
Plans and the fact sheet show the field would be expanded to 390 feet long by 215 feet wide — or 130 yards long by 71-2/3 yards wide. Lines for playing areas would vary per sport, but at the most would mark the field as 120 yards long, for girls lacrosse.
A schematic linked from the district’s fact sheet doesn’t show overall planned length and width for the playground area, but it appears to be about 59 feet (on the sides parallel to N. Fullerton Avenue) by 195 feet, judging by measurements for individual components and the schematic’s overall scale. Those dimensions do not include sidewalks along the side or cutting into corners of the play area. Superintendent Jonathan Ponds has not returned emails asking for the overall measurements of the current playground and the planned renovated one.
The expansion and overhaul had been on hold since May 2019, when the district rejected the one and only bid, for field work only, due to incomplete paperwork. And then the pandemic hit.
In March of this year, the BOE went out to bid again on the field, and later amended the bid specs to include the playground.
Four bids came in on the playground and field project, which was budgeted for $1.3 million. The lowest bid, from Grade Construction, was accepted at $1.45 million. The highest bid offered was $1.78 million.
Plans by playground manufacturer and designer GameTime released by the district show six pieces of playground equipment would be installed on the new playground. The filed and playground project are expected to be completed by Aug. 27.