Cutchogue East fourth-grader Billy Hickox is a man on a mission.
When the school took down an old wallball wall at the Cutchogue East complex where he’d been playing ball against since he was a kindergartner, it seemed to him that there were few really enjoyable recreation options left at the school.
Wallball is usually played with a Spalding pink rubber ball bounced against a wall. After hitting the wall, it bounces on the ground once, and if it bounces again before being hit back, the player closest to the ball is “out.”
Billy says sometimes there was a line of students that stretched through the basketball court and into a neighboring field waiting for their turn at the wallball court, which could accommodate 10 players at a time.
“It’s just something different to do,” he said. “It helps develop good ball-handling habits, especially in the spring when baseball season is beginning for the boys.”
He began asking around the school to find out what he could do to bring wallball back, and discovered the sport was more contentious than he’d originally thought. Some school officials told him there were safety considerations because the balls were too hard. Some said there were too many kids on the court at once and some said there were too many arguments because no official rules for the game had been established.
Billy decided to address those issues, drawing up a plan to provide goggles for students, use tennis balls instead of pink rubber balls and put together rules for the court.
He then began asking construction experts, including his neighbor, Charlie Nicholson, a designer at Riverhead Building Supply. Mr. Nicholson agreed to draw up plans for a new 16- to 20-foot wall and a fence to surround the playing area.
Billy presented his plan to the Mattituck-Cutchogue school board on March 15. He said he estimates the project will cost between $1,000 and $2,000, and he hopes the students can fundraise by collecting redeemable cans and bottles as part of the school’s “go green” initiative.
His idea was met with enthusiastic support from school board members, freeing him to raise funds and develop a design.
“They put us to shame. I’m very impressed with our kids,” said board member Douglas Cooper.
The board had just finished discussing another, much more expensive, potential project, spending $650,000 to repair the high school track.
“Do you want to build the track?” school board president Jerry Diffley jokingly asked Billy.
School business administrator Michael Engelhardt laid out the potential financial impact of the track project. Board members have not committed to going ahead with a voter referendum, which would be needed before the project could receive the green light.
Mr. Engelhardt suggested that if the school were to bundle the track project with other work related to the actual school building, it could receive state assistance. But he added that the state aid might not be more than 5 percent of the cost of the work.
Mr. Engelhardt estimated that $650,000 bonded for 15 years at 3.25 percent interest would cost the district about $60,000 per year in debt service. That cost would boil down to a tax increase of $8 to $10 per year for an average homeowner.
Joe Vas told board members he thought they should consider the proposal seriously, weighing the cost of having to transport students to away track meets because no other team will compete on Mattituck’s aging cinder track.
Mr. Vas added that he’s not fond of a proposal floated at a school board meeting two weeks ago to put down blacktop over the existing track, which would cost significantly less than the proposed all-weather surface.
“I personally would rather not Band-Aid it,” he said. “If it’s not safe, they shouldn’t be practicing on it.”
Curt Koch said that while he’d love to see the track replaced, the school should focus on keeping its financial house in order.
Mr. Koch said he worried that the district is “kicking the can down the road” by dipping into its fund balance to keep taxes below the recently imposed state tax levy cap, an assessment shared by board members and Superintendent James McKenna.
“In four to five years, our reserves are gone,” said board member Janique Nine.
“We forecast as best we can and we will manage it as aggressively as we have to,” said Mr. Diffley.