BOE Mulls Fate of Condemned Cardinal Field Bleachers, Class of 2019 Graduation

Closed bleachers at Cardinal Field. Photo: Leslie Yager

Closed bleachers at Cardinal Field. Photo: Leslie Yager

BOE members left to right: Peter Sherr, Kathleen Stowe, Gaetane Francis, Meghan Olsson, Peter Bernstein, Superintendent Ralph Mayo, Jennifer Dayton and Lauren Rabin. April 25, 2019 Photo: Leslie Yager

At the Board of Education meeting on Thursday it wasn’t long before the condemned bleachers in GHS Cardinal Field came up, and the question of how and where to hold graduation for the 700+ students and their families.

The bleachers were condemned during April vacation last week.

Per tradition, the graduation ceremony is held outside on the stadium field with the bleachers packed with families.

GHS senior class president James Heavey said the condemned bleachers present a threat to the quality of the current sports seasons and deter community involvement. But also, he said the lack of bleachers will impact graduation.

“Our class has been at GHS for four years and we are reaching our end. This is usually culminated in a massive graduation ceremony,” he said. “It is a huge open air ceremony of epic proportion….We all graduate together. One class – One graduation.”

“My classmates have been completely rattled by the mere idea that we will not be graduating together.” – James Heavey, GHS senior class president

“The bleachers are extremely important to the community at GHS. Every Cardinal at some time has been on those bleachers cheering on one of our many sports teams ranging from the state champion football team to the state champion girls track team. All of these sports teams perform and play directly in front of those bleachers.” – Senior class president James Heavey

“We have been able to field some recommendations,” he said, including having graduation at the beach or renting bleachers to put on the track.

James said there are multiple petitions all with the same goal: “One class – One graduation.”

A petition started by Diane Mays began circulating this week saying that if weather permits, graduation should be outside at Tod’s Point, Binney Park or Roger Sherman Baldwin Park, rather that in the GHS performing arts center which, the petition suggests would require three separate graduation ceremonies.

As of Friday morning the petition’s goal had increased from 1,000 to 1,500 and had 1,005 signatures.

During the public hearing the GHS PTA Presidents and parents urged the BOE to find a way to let the seniors graduate together. “We are asking you to do whatever it takes to make this happen,” said GHS PTA co-president Anne Pfetsch.

GHS PTA co-president Maureen Bonanno recalled years ago being moved to tears as she she drove her young twins down Putnam Ave past GHS graduation, and the meaningfulness of all students graduating in one place, “in their home with their teachers.”

Lisa Cooper acknowledged the petitions for an off site graduation that would keep the class together, but she said she had done research into temporary bleachers and concluded 1,500 could be accommodated on temporary bleachers at a price of $15.28 per person.

“If we can consider the possibility of temporary bleachers on the track, it’s very feasible,” she said.

During his superintendent’s report Ralph Mayo acknowledged that incoming superintendent Dr. Tono Jones was in the audience.

“We have a plan for graduation but that plan has not been approved by various town officials,” Mayo said. “We’re not going to get into it yet. As soon as we get approved, we’ll come back and make it public for everyone, but we’re not going to talk about that until we have a stamp of approval by various town agencies.”

“We do have a plan and hopefully it will be approved, and the kids, parents and all of us up here want the graduation to be on the field  at one time with everyone there. That’s our goal.”– Ralph Mayo, Greenwich Schools interim superintendent

Mayo said GHS interim headmaster Rick Piotrowski and facilities director Dan WAtson have been working on a plan and they deserve all the credit.

Mayo reviewed the “unfortunate turn of events” that led up to the bleachers being closed. In late March/early April the district received a complaint from a parent from a visiting team about the visitors bleachers, “that he was going to go through the bleachers or something was going to go through them.”

“We had the bleachers inspected and repaired,” he said of the visitors bleachers. “That’s when we, along with the building department and risk manager from the Town of Greenwich all took a hard look at the bleachers on the home side. Our consultant, structural engineer, the head of the building department, and risk manager all deemed the bleachers unsafe and needed to be shut down,” he explained.

“I seem to have a facilities problem a month as superintendent,” he joked. “At least this isn’t about water. Yet.”

“We’ve been looking at various options, not just for graduation. We have a whole sports season now and one ahead of us before our scheduled project – if passed by the RTM in May – we begin the tear down of those bleachers in early December,” he said, adding that there are “a couple options” for repairing the home bleachers, but that he did not recommend either of them.

Dan Watson, the head of facilities said the “guesstimates” submitted from a qualified engineer to bring the bleachers up to current code on a temporary, safe basis were “a lot more than I think a lot of people are willing to appreciate. That’s my own opinion, especially when we are moving forward with a brand new stadium.”

Watson held up a photo of one of 11 columns so rusted at the base that he could put his hand through it.

Watson said that when the existing bleachers were built 50 years ago there were no codes. Today there are codes, and the bleachers do not meet them.

A release from the district on April 15 said the bleachers were built to a standard of 60 pounds per square foot. Currently, code requires they hold 100 pounds per square foot.

“Not only do we have to repair a 50 year old structure, but it has to meet current codes,” Watson said of the possibility of repairing the bleachers. “There is an extensive amount of steel work that needs to be done, along with BOE costs including manpower to get the equipment out from underneath, possible storage areas and electrical modifications.”

“It’s pretty extensive but it’s doable. We could have it structurally sound by the start of the fall season.” – Dan Watson, Director of Facilities for Greenwich Schools

Peter Bernstein said the high “guesstimate” was $300,000, and the low was $225,000, but the bleachers still wouldn’t be repaired and up to code in time for graduation.

Jennifer Dayton said, “I want new bleachers and toilets by the fall season, but I also want us to be continuing to develop the site plan – so two parallel tracks.”

BOE chair Peter Bernstein said the administration – Rick Piotrowski , Dan Watson and Ralph Mayo – are working on a proposal.

“I’m hoping it (the proposal) is a heck of a lot less than $225,000,” Bernstein said, referring to the guesstimated minimum cost to repair the bleachers.

During the discussion of whether to repair the bleaches or source temporary ones, Gaetane Francis said she’d like the seniors to be together for graduation. But, she said, “I have a hard time supporting that if I don’t know what it’s going to cost. And if it rains we have to put everyone inside anyway.”

If graduation is held inside the Performing Arts Center, the entire class can’t graduate at the same time. There would have to be multiple ceremonies.

A graduation speaker has yet to be announced by the senior class.

“My motto is not to throw good money after bad,” Mayo said, referring to repairing the 50 year old bleachers. “We’ll get you more information on the rental of bleachers. We’re considering rental bleachers for 1,800 people.”