Backing down from a previous ultimatum, County Executive Ken Ulman has proposed an alternative option for funding artificial turf fields at county high schools. But the school board has yet to weigh in on either option — or even if they want turf fields at all.
For nearly a year now, Ulman and his staff have been working with school system staff on a proposal to convert grass stadiums at the 12 county high schools to turf fields, which would be shared between school teams and community recreation teams. Both staffs had agreed that using half of the $4 million slated to come to the county from increased state alcohol tax revenues would be a good way to start the conversions.
Last month, the school board — learning of the plan for using the state money for turf fields after the state Board of Public Works had already approved it — deferred a decision on allowing the projects to move forward.
At the time, Ulman warned that if the board didn't use the alcohol tax funds for turf fields, "there would be absolutely no county money coming for fields."
Ulman reversed his position last week by sending a letter to the board with two funding proposals. Besides the original plan, Ulman offered to pay for turf fields at all the high schools in the Department of Recreation and Parks budget, as long as the school system agreed to share the replacement costs.
Ulman said he is frustrated the board has yet to respond to either his Oct. 14 or Nov. 15 letters suggesting a partnership between the school system and the county Department of Recreation and Parks to install, use and maintain turf fields at the high schools.
"We're really striving for a fair and reasonable cost sharing relationship," Ulman said. "At the end of the day, I have a lot of budgetary pressures ... What I'm really looking for is an indication from the school board that they think this is a good idea."
Board member Frank Aquino described the proposals as "reasonably compelling," but said the board has to discuss how to fund turf fields within the context of other capital budget priorities.
"I think we have to take seriously the county executive's proposal to have the county fund all 12 through Recreation and Parks," Aquino said.
Ulman, meanwhile, prefers his original proposal to use $2 million of the alcohol tax funds for the first two fields because it would allow the installation of the fields to begin in the summer of 2012 instead of the summer of 2013. The proposal would have Recreation and Parks pay to install the other 10 fields, as well as 75 percent of the replacement costs for all 12 fields; the school system would pay the other 25 percent.
Turf fields need to be replaced after about 10 to 12 years. The other proposal to have all 12 fields installed with Recreation and Park dollars would split the replacement costs evenly between the school system and Recreation and Parks.
Under Ulman's preferred proposal, the first two schools to get the turf fields would be Atholton and Hammond high schools, both in Columbia. The state Board of Public Works had approved half of Howard's $4 million alcohol tax funding allocation be used for the fields at those schools and the other $2 million be used on various renovation projects at three other Columbia schools.
When the school board deferred its decision on the projects Oct. 20, members asked the school system staff to come back with a new list of prioritized projects.
At a board meeting Nov. 17, the staff presented four alternative projects. The projects are to replace leaking roofs at Dunloggin Middle, in Ellicott City, and Harper's Choice Middle, in Columbia, and to repair roofs at Bollman Bridge Elementary School, in Jessup, and Howard High School, in Ellicott City.
"The fact is it can't be great for a learning environment if you have a series of buckets in the hallway while kids are trying to transition between classrooms and trying to avoid them while they are sitting at their desks," said Ken Roey, executive director of facilities, planning and management.
Board members questioned why repairing the leaking roofs was not on the initial list of projects for the alcohol tax funding.
"It's really, really politically hard to say turf fields over buckets and leaks in the roof," Brian Meshkin said.
The board will hold a public hearing on all the possible projects they could use the funding for (see accompanying list) on Dec. 8 and vote on a final list of projects Dec. 20.
If the board chooses to fund any of the roofing projects, school system staff will have to resubmit the projects to the Board of Public Works for approval.
Ulman: Time is now
Ulman said the time is now to fund installation of turf fields.
"When you're sitting there with the best field that's not being used, I think it is a real problem," he said, referring to the grass fields at high school stadiums, which are currently only used for games to avoid wear and tear.
With turf fields, school sports teams could practice on the stadium fields and avoid having to send teams off site, which some schools have to do because of limited field space. The turf fields could also be able to be used by community recreation leagues in the evenings and on the weekends, when school games are not scheduled.
"As many fields as we have, there is still a tremendous demand for field time," Ulman said. "Having 12 additional fields (for Recreation and Parks to use) at the high school stadiums would be a huge step toward alleviating all the backlog."
Under the proposed partnership, the school system would split usage of the fields with the Department of Recreation and Parks, with school sports getting priority. The school system would maintain the fields with technical assistance from the Recreation and Parks.