Three strikes and you’re out; no resolution in sight for debate over sports field maintenance

ST. STEPHEN – A 10-year contract between Anglophone School District-South (ASD-S) and the Town of St. Stephen regarding the upkeep of two ASD-S owned baseball fields expired June, 2020, and there currently no agreement in place. Danny Noddin of the St. Stephen Minor Baseball Association (SSMBA) said he spoke to Mayor Allan MacEachern about the issue, and was told that negotiations are taking place, and upkeep of these fields is in part the responsibility of the school district. Unfortunately, ASD-S is looking to create a different agreement, one that would see the district push all maintenance costs onto the town.

“The province is the problem,” said MacEachern. “The contract was up almost two years ago with the school district. They own the fields. We used to have a contract, and they paid so much money and we looked after them.

“They no longer want to contribute any budget money, and of course we had COVID last year, so couldn’t use the fields anyway and they let it go.”

Director of Schools Derek O’Brien said the district has provided the fields for the community to use, and that will now be the end of the district’s involvement.

“It’s with the Town of St. Stephen now. That’s where we’ve left it. Our director of finance and admin takes care of that from here. He’s moved on with that,” said O’Brien.

When O’Brien says the issue is “with the Town of St. Stephen”, the assumption is he is referring to the new draft agreement currently in the hands of town council, and was a topic of hot debate at the Wednesday, June 30 town council meeting.

The draft agreement, which is within the June 30 town council meeting agenda package, and can be found and read on the Town of St. Stephen website under the Town Hall tab, does indeed give the town full use of the local fields, but there is little definition when it comes to who is responsible for what larger scale improvements should those fields require them down the road. In fact, the agreement states simply that such decisions will be made through conversation between the Town of St. Stephen and ASD-S as and when required, outside the specifics of the agreement itself.

In addition, while as part of the previous, 10 year agreement ASD-S contributed $20,000 annually to the maintenance of the fields, and the town foot the additional $80,000 portion of the bill, this new draft agreement suggests a basic exchange of $10 each on the part of each party for use and field maintenance, effectively negating any financial support from ASD-S.

“When I was reading through the agreement, there’s not a lot of definition on what is a minor repair and major repair,” said Councillor David Hyslop. “Or what state they (the fields) are in now.

“If we’re going to take liability, what’s existing there now that would be an issue for the town, if they’re (ASD-S) not taking any responsibility?” he added.

“The request for renewal fell on deaf ears,” said town CAO, Jeff Renaud during the council meeting.

According to Noddin, there is a lot of finger-pointing going on from both sides.

“I personally don’t care whose fault it is,” said Noddin. “All I know is no one is really trying to fix this issue, and they need to get this done. From the kids to the adults that aren’t allowed to use the fields, everyone is losing.”

A letter from the St. Stephen Minor Baseball Association stated, “On April 21, 2020 the town informed athletic field users that a 10-year agreement was due to expire on June 2, 2020 and that management and maintenance of the fields by the town would cease.

“This change forced SSMBA to use (and share with the local softball teams) the one and only town-owned field (the Rotary baseball diamond) in 2020 and to reduce our program offering due to lack of fields, despite lobbying for continued negotiations with ASD-S. Twelve months have now passed since the expiration of that agreement, 14 months since users were notified by the town, and 19 months since the town indicated that they reached out to the school division in an effort to negotiate a renewal of this agreement.”

The letter goes on to state the organization understands and accepts such negotiations can be complicated and take time, but without an agreement, SSMBA “would be forced to make alternate arrangements and absorbing additional costs in purchasing equipment or sourcing the services of a private company”.

SSMBA was able to work with the school district to secure the fields through an online booking system, as well as with conversations with local representatives. The district was able to commit to very limited maintenance of the fields (mowing and dragging once each week but no lining). “This commitment is far from perfect, but at least it was a start, especially from ASD-S who is not mandated to provide recreation to children outside of school”.

But it looks like ASD-S isn’t interested in being party to the scheduling of games and activities on the fields, and support by the district via the online booking system can’t be relied on.

“Representation (ASD-S) would like to see the old agreement in place, where the town takes responsibility for everything, without any financial support from the school,” said Renaud. He went on to say in his role as town CAO, he cannot in “good faith” recommend council sign the agreement as written.

“You can do it,” said Renaud, “and settle some political things going on in the community…but in two years time or less, we’re back in the same situation.”

“It’s not just kids. It’s for the community. If we were to do a contract, it’s going to cost the town taxpayers more money the way it looks right now. They (school district) don’t seem to be wanting to budge or do anything,” said MacEachern.

“Meanwhile, not to bring the province into it, but they complain about healthcare and all this stuff. It just drives me crazy when they don’t want to support recreation for the schools. I also understand the school district’s point of view. Their budget’s not good. I get that. That’s why I say it’s a provincial issue and not a district issue. They need to be allotted more money to support recreation, and they’re not. That’s quite obvious.”

SSMBA played their first game on Monday, June 21, and approached the Town of St. Stephen to borrow the dry line marker to line one field for that evening’s game. SSMBA were denied the request, stating it “does not give the impression of one wanting to do whatever they can to get the kids playing ball”.

“I don’t think anyone on town council or working for the town wants to have that shortfall on the kids,” said Hyslop. “It’s important to note we want to do what’s in the best interests of the kids.”

MacEachern said he understands the frustration of SSMBA at not using town equipment, but he has to worry about setting a precedent when it comes to loaning equipment out to various groups. Not only is there the risk of damage to the equipment, there is also a risk the school district may see this as a way out of having to pay for field maintenance.

“If we start lending out equipment and the work gets done, then the district’s not going to do anything,” said MacEachern. “That’s a tough spot that I’m in on that. Of course, you can’t lend equipment out to different groups. It gets broken and then we can’t do the work ourselves. Where do you draw the line? Do we start lending out our heavy equipment to people?”

“To me, it’s kind of weird,” said Noddin. “I don’t know how we can expect the school board to pay for that when they don’t even have kids in school through the summer. To me, it’s more on the backs of the town to supply a place for people to be able to play sports and do whatever it is they do during the summer.” The draft agreement would have the town maintain the fields beyond the summer season, and they would bear the brunt from May 1 to October 31 for the duration of the agreement, essentially eliminating ASD-S from having to provide any maintenance during the school year either.

Noddin said he has always been involved with the sport, both as a player and as a coach. He has asked what he can do to help, who he can meet with, but said he’s had no real answers. He and other volunteers did drag the fields a couple of weeks ago so they would be playable for a game that was scheduled, but he feels the town should be making more of an effort to do the work.

“All I know is when I talked to both Derek O’Brien and Allan, it’s all about ‘the other guy’s not working with me and not getting this done’.

“The more you try to get information, the more you run into a wall,” Noddin remarked.

MacEachern thinks the problem is more with the province than with ASD-S. He said the province talks about encouraging health and wellness, but doesn’t provide school districts with enough funding to be able to maintain athletic fields that people use to get exercise. He said the province essentially owns the fields, but don’t want to invest in their upkeep.

“Call the (Saint Croix) MLA,” said MacEachern during the council meeting.

“It’s just very frustrating. It’s frustrating to know that for the last 35 to 40 years I’ve been around those ball fields, they’ve always been accessible. Now, they’re just not,” said Noddin.

“We’re just asking for fairness,” said MacEachern. “The town taxpayers should not be footing the bill for recreation for the whole high school catchment area. It’s just not fair. That little bit they were paying helped. It wasn’t even enough.

MacEachern said when original attempts were made to renegotiate with no response from ASD-S, he contacted District Superintendent Zoe Watson, who has returned his calls. But, he feels that there was no reason to have had to wait so long for a response.

And the result of the debate at the council meeting? The entire council agreed to continue to try and negotiate with the ASD-S, and in the meantime, they will help keep the fields manageable.

“Who’s taking the heat? The town,” said MacEachern. “They’re throwing snowballs at the town and myself, but throw them at the MLA, the province, they’ve got some skin in the game here too. But, they (people) don’t see that. They just see it’s a town problem.

“It shouldn’t have to be that way. It’s frustrating.”

sarigreen@stcroixcourier.ca