by Sarah Hall
for The Beacon
Reducing the use of harmful lawn-care chemicals on Plymouth School District grounds was a goal everyone could agree on.
But disagreement over how far and fast to press the issue caused quite a stir at what otherwise would have been an entirely routine lunchtime meeting of the Plymouth School Board’s Facilities Committee at Plymouth High School April 7.
The flap focused an immediate and unexpected level of attention on the health and environmental costs of using pesticides to keep school grounds looking good, just as administrators undertake a major outdoor upgrade: a long-awaited, donor-funded project to cover PHS’s Finke Field in artificial turf this summer.
A presentation by the Plymouth Environmental Action Team was on the April 7 Facilities Committee agenda, but John Binder – who founded PEAT in 2019 and has seen it grow to include 67 members – had asked to postpone after some of PEAT’s most active participants clashed over what would be the most constructive approach to take.
In the meantime, PEAT member JoAnne Friedman – a longtime activist known as “Grandma Jo,” whose admitted passion is protecting children, including her own 13 grandkids, from the effects of pesticides – opted to fill the slot herself, invited the media and rallied environmentalists from all over the county to turn out in support.
Fifteen arrived, holding picket signs illustrating the dangers of lawn chemicals.
Friedman’s supporters were evidently motivated by a broadly distributed email she had sent, stating that “our goal is to have Sheboygan County ban all toxic chemicals on school grounds and begin a movement to have Wisconsin be the next state to ban all toxic chemicals in parks, sports fields and school grounds.”
In an attachment were photos of pesticide spraying that had occurred around every building in the Plymouth school system soon after Friedman and others had last met with Superintendent Dan Mella and other school administrators, on behalf of PEAT, in July 2021. Accounts differ as to what exactly was said or promised there, but Mella contends that he committed to phasing out chemical treatments, the subsequent spraying was the last one in an expiring annual contract with a landscaping company and he emailed PEAT afterwards to explain the unfortunate timing.
At least some of six school representatives at the Facilities Committee meeting – which included Mella and three other administrators as well as Board of Education President Bob Travis and Secretary Sally Isely – seemed surprised by the level of attention Friedman’s protest attracted, perhaps because they were already working towards reducing pesticide use. Early in the 2021-22 school year, the school board identified sustainability, broadly defined in terms of both protecting natural resources and retaining staff, as a top annual goal, so officials already supported the concept of taking a more “green” approach.
As Friedman approached the committee to speak, another woman – Patti VandeHei, who identified herself as a PEAT leader representing the organization, suddenly stepped forward and interrupted her.
“I’m sorry… but this was cancelled and there is such a thing as process and goals. Our parent group believes in process, and we want to keep the doors of communication open, with not only this board, but with other community organizations,” VandeHei said.
“When you have the presentation ready and you want to bring it to us, we’re all ears. We would like to learn more,” responded Travis, who heads the Facilities Committee as well as the school board. “We really understand that there’s a lot of good information out there about how we can be better stewards of our environment and our grounds, and we’re more than willing to listen.”
VandeHei explained that PEAT hopes to raise awareness about pesticides and encourage better policies regarding them, but said she had confidence that school officials were already moving in that direction.
She then suggested that the other visitors gathered “take your presentation outside, for your news media.”
No one budged.
Friedman went ahead and introduced herself and Travis asked for clarity as to who was actually representing PEAT, since PEAT was the group on the agenda. Friedman pointed out that she is a PEAT member, which VandeHei verified. Travis suggested that organization might want to resolve its own internal conflicts before presenting. VandeHei once again asked Friedman’s group to leave.
“You have done so much work. It breaks my heart to do this to you. Please forgive me in the future,” VandeHei added. “But perhaps controversy is not all bad.”
Friedman then interjected, saying that “before we go, I would like to have everyone here introduce themselves… I’d also like to say that we’re very concerned about keeping the children safe and we hope that you become the first school district in the county to ban pesticides on school grounds.”
Several of her supporters then jumped in and expressed interest in attending any future school board meetings where the issue might be considered.
“I’m a retired veterinarian, said Carolyn Dow. “It is clear that people’s immune systems — especially those of young, growing people – are very much affected by pesticides. It runs off, it’s in the streams, it gets into our lakes and it’s in the air.”
“Would you let your kids run around on your lawn after you sprayed this stuff?,” asked Gary Decker President of Village of Waldo. “If you would say yes to that, I feel sorry for you. If you would say no, then why are you doing it here?”
Mary Faydash with Friends of the Black River Forest said her group has been studying the effects of pesticides on groundwater and offered to assist with efforts to educate school officials and the public about safer practices.
“We have been taking up the same issue and we are very much concerned about the pesticides,” especially since this is a farming area and agricultural chemicals have been linked to neurological issues and cancer, said Dr. Patricia Roby, a supervisor for the Town of Lyndon. She asked that the Plymouth School Board stay in touch with her town board.
A man who identified himself as a Plymouth School District parent and taxpayer said that banning pesticides “seems like common sense and it would save me tax money. What harm could it cause? We are not a golf course.”
“My grandchildren go to school here and I am very concerned about them,” noted LuAnn Kubish.
Janet Malone, a longtime 4H leader in the Town of Mitchell, said that five of her six children are PHS graduates and one is an environmental engineer. She pointed out both the danger of pesticides and the lack of compelling need to use them.
“I would like to say that I personally have been affected,” VandeHei herself chimed in. “They say they don’t know what causes leukemia, but I have chronic lymphatic leukemia, and I am a farm girl. Who knows?”
Travis thanked the speakers and added that “we need community education on this, beyond here” inviting them to help the district’s Community Education and Recreation Department explore courses that would help the public learn about more responsible lawn management.
After the visitors left, Mella noted that “we are continuing to work towards having no weed spraying in the district. And the new turf on the football field will eliminate the need for pesticide spraying there.”
“The goal will be to get to clover cover, but as we transition, people have to understand that it may not look the prettiest,” Travis pointed out. “There will be people who look at our lawns and think we are not taking care of the place. But maybe we’re taking care of something bigger.”
Binder, PEAT’s founder, related afterwards that “if we work at this cooperatively, great things will happen. I think the school district realizes that there’s a serious concern about use of pesticides and we can work together to resolve this.”
“PEAT continues to be a work in progress” that has no officers, he noted. “We are an organization of committees, and one person who decided to be a committee of one decided to move forward independently.”
But according to Binder, two positive outcomes emerged: PEAT is now motivated to more clearly define its structure and “the district is now very aware that there is a lot of concern about harmful chemicals being allowed on school property.”
When asked for comment afterward, Friedman said she had been trying to get the school system to ban pesticides for years (starting with the previous superintendent), was frustrated by what she saw as poor communication and a slow pace of progress and wanted the board and administration to actually put a formal policy in place.
Still pinned to the top of PEAT’s Facebook page, its main online presence, is a July 28, 2021 petition asking the Plymouth School District to “stop using pesticides on school playgrounds and athletic fields and switch to proven safe and cost-effective landscaping practices.” On Monday night, Travis told the school board at its Committee of the Whole meeting about what had unfolded at the Facilities Committee meeting a few days before, noting that it was at times uncomfortable, but instructive.
“As a board, you should know that we’ve already made the decision not to use pesticides on school grounds in the district,” he said.