Political Notebook: Turf fields prime example of chicken-or-egg debate

Most school board members agree with County Executive Ken Ulman that converting the grass fields at county high school stadiums to artificial turf is a good idea.

However, they don't share Ulman's sense of urgency to make it happen.

Ulman has been pushing for a partnership between the school system and the county Department of Recreation and Parks to install, maintain and use turf fields. But the school board, to Ulman's frustration, has been all but silent on the issue, letting Ulman's letters to the board go unanswered.

"I have looked at it," board member Ellen Giles said about Ulman's most recent letter and supporting documents. "But I certainly didn't look at all the implications of shared use and what that means."

Without having had time to fully vet the idea of shared use or hear input from school system staff on Ulman's most recent proposal, Giles said she hasn't made up her mind yet about turf fields.

Board member Sandra French expressed similar sentiments.

"Having turf fields is a nice idea," she said, and a joint-use agreement "may be worth looking at." However, French said she is not informed enough to make any decisions at this time.

"I think everyone can agree that turf fields are a good idea," board member Brian Meshkin said. "The question is how it's going to be implemented."

Meshkin said the board will have to work out the implementation details before making a decision to pursue a joint-use agreement with the county and commit any funding to turf fields.

Board member Allen Dyer said the county executive and the school board, with different roles and responsibilities, "move at different speeds."

Turf fields, he said, is "a topic that's going to take (the board) some time to look at. We can't just go and do things."

Dyer mentioned some of the potential implications of expanding use of the stadiums by installing turf fields.

"There are some difficulties experienced by surrounding property owners for parking … whenever (the schools) have large events," he said.

Dyer also has concerns about the school system altering its agreement with the community that minimizes the use of stadium lights in the evening, which the Department of Recreation and Parks would need to do to use the fields in the evenings.

"To open that up to more use of those lights in the evening, that's a major, major issue that has to be considered," Dyer said.

Asked about the contention that aspects of the joint-use agreement such as extending use of the stadium lights could cause, Ulman said he'd be open to working with the board — within reason.

But he added, "We've gotten no feedback whatsoever from the Board of Education that they think this is a good idea in any way … I don't want to talk about the details until I get a sense that yes, this is a good idea."

It's the classic chicken-or-the-egg debate. Which comes first, the decision to pursue a joint-use agreement, as Ulman believes, or a discussion of the details involved in shared use of turf fields, which school board members favor? More importantly, will the process chosen affect whether or not Howard County high schools get turf fields, and when?

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