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Judge Issues Injunction to Cease Installation of PHS Artificial Turf

By David McNutt

A Mercer County Superior Court judge has temporarily enjoined the Princeton Regional School District from installing artificial turf at Princeton High School's Harris Stadium.

Judge Raymond A. Hayser issued a temporary injunction to prevent American Athletic Courts, the district's contractor for the project, from installing AstroPlay, its artificial athletic field surface.

The decision follows the July 18 submission of a 75-page legal challenge by Land Tek – an unsuccessful bidder in the project that utilizes a rival artificial turf surface – regarding the district's contract with American Athletic Courts.

According to District Superintendent Claire Sheff Kohn, although Judge Hayser handed down his decision on July 25, the school district did not learn of the order until July 29.

"Our belief is that the order was issued without the proper notice or reasonable opportunity for American Athletic Courts or us to be heard," stated Dr. Kohn.

A hearing on the matter is scheduled for September 12, but that leaves little time for the district, as the PHS football team's first home game is slated for September 20 against Lawrence High School.

"[September 12] is too late for us," stated Dr. Kohn. "Our attorneys are filing to get this moved up. There is no recognition of a school year about to begin and an athletic program about to get under way."

To be comprised of a synthetic combination of sand and rubber, the field is expected be utilized by the football, soccer, lacrosse, and field hockey programs. District officials had previously announced plans to dedicate the field at the PHS homecoming football game on October 11.

"This is not just about football," said Dr. Kohn. "We're losing fields at both PHS and at [John Witherspoon Middle School]. We're going to be down all these fields, and we had depended on the artificial turf.

"The timing of all this is critical," she added. "This order could hurt a lot of kids as well as our whole athletic program."

At the end of June, the installation of the new surface began with the removal of topsoil from the current field site. A layer of gravel was to be added for drainage beneath the artificial surface, which is intended to allow for both practice and game use.

Dr. Kohn stated that the district's athletic director, Eric Amkraut, has begun to make arrangements for a contingency plan in case the district is unable to expedite the project.

Disputed Contract

The installation of the artificial turf is part of the district's $81.3 million construction and renovation project, which is supported by a $61.3 million bond approved by voters in May 2001 and $20 million in state aid.

On April 29, the Princeton Regional Board of Education awarded a $714,500 contract to American Athletic Courts Inc. for the installation of AstroPlay.

At the time, the School Board unanimously rejected the lowest bid of $523,264 from Shearon Environmental Design because the firm did not have the requisite New Jersey public works contractor registration certificate. As the next lowest bidder deemed to be responsive to all legal stipulations, American Athletic Courts was awarded the contract.

However, the third lowest bidder, Land Tek – which submitted a bid of $742,000 for its product, FieldTurf – subsequently filed suit, claiming that American Athletic Courts' product did not meet the specifications of the design and seeking a temporary restraining order.

Judge Hayser did not issue such an order at that time, instead instructing American Athletic Courts to adhere strictly to each of the particular bid specifications.

The contractor's proposal for the artificial turf installation was subsequently reviewed and accepted by The Hillier Group, the district's architectural firm.

"This order is highly unusual," said Dr. Kohn. "In general, the architects and engineers – the professionals – decide if the product specifications meet the bid requirements. Our architects and engineers have judged that they did."

Subsequently, at its June 25 meeting, the School Board's facilities committee reviewed the contractor's report and agreed that all requirements had been met.

According to Michael Mostoller, the chairman of the facilities committee, Land Tek responded with a letter to the school district that cited deficiencies in the surface to be installed by American Athletic Courts prior to submitting its most recent challenge.

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