The county school board's reluctance to use alcohol tax money from the state to install artificial turf fields at two high schools puts the nonpartisan body at odds with the Democratic county executive, and also puts the future of turf fields at county high schools in limbo.
When the General Assembly passed legislation last spring increasing the state alcohol tax from 6 percent to 9 percent, $4 million of the additional revenue earned this year was earmarked to go to Howard County for school construction projects.
On Oct. 5, the state Board of Public Works, composed of Gov. Martin O'Malley, Treasurer Nancy Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot, approved $4 million in projects requested by the county school system. Half of the money was slated for the turf fields, at Hammond and Atholton high schools, both in Columbia. The other $2 million was to be used on various renovation projects at three other Columbia schools.
The school board did not learn of the plans until after the school system sent its request to the state.
"In all retrospect, we all wish we had brought it to the board before the Oct. 5 Board of Public Works meeting, but we didn't," said Ken Roey, the school system's executive director of facilities, planning and management.
After learning from a reporter that the request came to the Board of Public Works without being vetted by the school board, Franchot said he was surprised.
"I assumed that they had reviewed it and gave it their good stamp of approval," he said last week. "I would hope every jurisdiction would have a process where all the local stakeholders were involved."
At the Oct. 5 meeting Franchot had asked Wayne Crosby, Howard's director of school facilities, what was the rationale for making turf fields such a priority. Crosby explained that turf fields would allow schools and the community to get more use out of the stadiums, which are currently only used for games to avoid wear and tear on the grass.
"Based on the testimony I received at the board meeting, I was somewhat reluctant, but I went along with the $4 million allocation for Howard County," Franchot said.
At the Oct. 20 school board meeting, board chairwoman Janet Siddiqui said "it is unfortunate that the board had missed some key communication."
During the meeting, board members voiced their support for having artificial turf fields at all county high schools, but not for funding any of them with the alcohol tax money.
"In general, I support artificial turf … and it would be great if we could do it in every school," board member Frank Aquino said.
Aquino suggested the board not take a vote on projects for the alcohol tax funding that night and "that we direct staff to come up with a revised list of projects without the turf fields."
Other board members agreed.
In deciding to defer a vote, the board plans to get a new list of prioritized capital projects from school system staff sometime in the next month so it can hold a public hearing in December. School system Chief Operating Officer Ray Brown said the board would have to decide which projects it would want funded and present a new request to the Board of Public Works by Jan. 31.
'Real critical moment'
No county schools currently have turf fields. County Executive Ken Ulman said his staff and school system staff spent the past year looking into the idea of converting the grass stadiums at high schools to turf fields for shared use between school sports and community recreation.
"I feel very strongly that turf fields are a win-win-win situation," he said. "It's a real benefit to all of the sport teams at each school. It also prevents rain outs and other weather-related cancellations."
Ulman said he was hoping the state alcohol tax revenue could be used to jump-start the conversions, then he would provide funding for turf fields at the other 10 county high schools, roughly three each year, in the county's Department of Recreation and Parks budget.
But if the school system elects not to use the state money for the turf fields at Atholton and Hammond, Ulman said before last week's meeting, "there would absolutely be no county money coming for fields."
"It's a real critical moment," he said before the board's meeting Oct 20. "If we don't do it now, we're not going to do it any time soon."
Asked the day after the board's inaction if he stood by what he said before the meeting, Ulman said in an e-mailed statement: "As you are aware last Friday I sent a letter to the Board Of Education explaining my thoughts and rationale for using General Assembly approved additional capital funding for Howard County schools. As of this time, the Board has not responded to my letter. I still believe that a partnership to implement the Interscholastic Athletic Advisory Committee of the Board of Education recommendations and install synthetic turf fields at all 12 high school stadiums would be beneficial for all."
Roey said no official shared-use agreement has been finalized between the school system and the county, but certain parameters have been discussed.
"The most critical part of the agreement from my perspective is how do we budget for the replacement costs," Roey said, noting that replacements would cost about a half-million dollars and be needed every eight to 10 years.
Recreation and Parks officials said they could likely pay about 75 percent of the replacement costs. But in return for paying most of the bills, Roey said the county would want the school system to extend the times in which it could use the stadium lights.
Because the school board agreed on specific times with the community when putting in the lights — no games would be held after 5:30 p.m. when there is school the next day; lights would be out by 9:30 p.m. in other cases, unless there are extenuating circumstances — members expressed concern about altering the agreement.
"The thing that bothers me that we could be pressured into tearing down our promise to the neighboring residents to the amount of time that the lights could be on," school board member Sandra French said.