WOBOE discusses plans for new bubble

Photo by Amanda Valentovic
West Orange High School’s practice bubble stood at the above site before collapsing after a snowstorm this past winter; the district is currently considering options to replace it.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Plans are moving ahead to rebuild and expand the athletic bubble at West Orange High School after a snowstorm caused it to collapse, Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky and the West Orange Board of Education announced at the July 16 BOE meeting. The bubble is a covering that allows the fields to be used during the winter and in inclement weather.

At the Monday night meeting, Business Administrator John Calavano said that contractor bids on the project would open Tuesday, July 17, after several members of the public asked how the bubble would be improved.

Calavano said that the district is hoping to choose a bidder sooner rather than later so plans for the new bubble can move forward. When they do, the plans will involve students who will be taking advantage of the new facility.

“We had our students in the advanced engineering class take some time and design what they believe would be an effective indoor bubble,” Rutzky said. “We gave them some parameters like locker rooms and size and the weight room and other things that the board would be interested in considering for what the inside of the bubble will look like. They did a phenomenal job.”

One improvement Rutzky and the board hope for in the new bubble is more space. In the current bubble, the corner areas are not usable due to the slope of the roof. The roof support beams are angled, making the ends of the bubble difficult to navigate. In a new structure, the support beams will be 10 feet high before being angled.

“We’ve spoken to a lot of our coaches and gotten feedback from them about what they would like to see and how it will be done,” Rutzky said. “It really is a facility that is used by a lot of the coaches and a lot of our physical education teachers.”

BOE Vice President Mark Robertson said the district is considering options for the bubble, but has to balance it with budget constraints.

“We’re looking at what the wind rating is for the structure, how it disperses snow more effectively and efficiently so we’re not having these annual collapses,” Robertson said at the meeting.

John Blanton, a resident who spoke at the meeting, said the district should consider other alternatives to the bubble when keeping budget in mind.

“We’ve spent an enormous amount of money over the last few years continuing to put that bubble up,” Blanton said. “So I think we need to look at another alternative.”

Other residents, however, are pleased with the bubble and anticipate the expected positive effect it will have on West Orange High School’s athletic teams.

“The soccer program is incredible and has been incredible for a long time, and the lacrosse program is growing,” resident Bill Sullivan said at the meeting. “We’re now adding a women’s team and there are so many people excited that you added girls’ lacrosse to our program. So we need a practice facility for inclement weather and in the winter. It seems to me that now is the time to take advantage of an opportunity.”

Sullivan’s son plays lacrosse, and recently his team traveled to Mount Olive for a weekend tournament. Sullivan said the Morris County town’s facilities are an example of what West Orange could do with its own athletic facilities. The Mount Olive practice bubble is big enough for two full-sized fields, which are being rented to recoup the millions of dollars the town invested in the project.

“We too are ecstatic about how well our lacrosse team is doing and that we now have a girls’ lacrosse team,” Robertson said. “This is exciting stuff and this will be a new area where we’re competitive. But it comes down to balancing a better structure and cost.”

Sullivan also said the WOHS bubble should be bigger, if possible, and questioned why the school’s weight room is inside it.

“I frankly never understood why the bubble at the high school was used for a weight room and a locker room,” Sullivan said. “Ideally I think we should look at expanding the footprint, which I know is a significant expense, but it should at least be thought about. What I would suggest is that, if you’re going to put the bubble back where it is, get enough space so that there would be about 20 more yards to have practice.”

Rutzky said the weight room has been located inside the bubble because there is limited space inside the WOHS building. He also explained why the bubble collapsed and why the district has chosen to build a new one rather than repair the damaged one.

“The HVAC system was the problem,” Rutzky said at the meeting. “That’s why it was collapsing. It wasn’t so much the issue of repairs not being able to be done — it was going to become unrepairable. The HVAC could not keep up and keep it inflated properly, so when there was weight and there was snow around the outside, it collapsed.”

Rutzky said that when the district compared the prices of replacing the HVAC and roof of the bubble to revamping it completely, they came out nearly even. It makes more sense to rebuild the bubble, especially since the facility’s life expectancy has passed.

“The bubble that we have is about 14 years old and the lifespan was only about eight years,” BOE President Ron Charles said at the meeting. “A new bubble has 18- to 20-year guarantees and they’re built with LED lighting on the inside. It’s a quantum leap in the way the bubble was.”