Artificial turf field enthusiasts dominated a public hearing before the Board of Education Thursday, Dec. 8, as residents told the board how it should spend $4 million in one-time state grant money.
"This is a big deal to a lot of these student-athletes," said Jack Milani, who chaired a subcommittee of the school system's Interscholastic Athletic Advisory Committee formed to study the possibility of converting school stadium fields to artificial turf.
Milani, a Glenelg resident, was one of a dozen people at the hearing who advocated for turf field funding, touting benefits the fields would produce, such as reduced maintenance costs, reduced risk of injuries and increased opportunities for playing time. At least a dozen more attended to hearing to support turf fields but did not speak.
The $4 million slated to come to Howard County is from additional revenues raised this year following a 50 percent increase (from 6 percent to 9 percent) in the state alcohol tax that took effect July 1. The board is scheduled to vote on which projects it wants to fund at its Dec. 20 meeting.
Earlier this year, the school system had requested — and the state Board of Public Works had approved — half the money be used to replace grass football fields with artificial turf at Hammond and Atholton high schools, both in Columbia. The other $2 million was approved for various renovation projects at three other Columbia schools.
But the school board did not learn of the school system's plan for the money until after the request had been sent to the state. Reluctant to spend the money on turf fields over other funding obligations, the board deferred approval of the projects and asked system staff to come back with an alternative list of prioritized projects.
At a Nov. 17 board meeting, Ken Roey, the executive director of facilities, planning and management, presented the alternatives — replacements to leaking roofs at Dunloggin Middle, in Ellicott City, and Harper's Choice Middle, in Columbia, and repairs to roofs at Bollman Bridge Elementary School, in Jessup, and Howard High School, in Ellicott City.
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.
No one at the Dec. 8 hearing spoke about the roofing projects. Of the 13 people who testified, only one did not speak about turf fields.
Columbia resident Susan Riss, speaking on behalf of the Oakland Mills High School boosters, advocated for the $1 million the Board of Public Works had approved for improvements at the high school. With the money, Oakland Mills would get an indoor concession stand and be able to replace its outdated stadium press box, outdoor concession stand, wrestling mat storage lift, hall lockers, interior doors and security and fire alarms.
"We've got a lot of old school things that have been going on at Oakland Mills," Riss said.
The artificial turf field advocates were all representatives of high school athletics and community recreation.
They support the proposal, which Milani's subcommittee helped develop, to have the grass stadiums at the 12 county high schools converted to artificial turf fields for shared use between school teams and community recreation teams. Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties already have similar partnerships.
For nearly a year, County Executive Ken Ulman and his staff have been working with school system staff to create a partnership in Howard. 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 to artificial turf.
With the state money — which has to be used by June 30, the end of the current fiscal year — the conversions at Atholton and Hammond would take place in the summer of 2012.
Should the school board choose to use the state money for projects other than turf fields, Ulman has offered to pay for all 12 conversions through the county Department of Recreation and Parks budget. The conversions would start in summer 2013 and be spread over three or four years.
The board's decision would also impact how turf field replacements, which will be needed every 10 to 12 years, will be funded.
If the board uses $2 million of the state money for turf fields, Ulman said the school system would only have to pay for 25 percent of the replacement costs; Recreation and Parks would fund the other 75 percent.
But if the board asks Recreation and Parks to pay for all 12 conversions, instead of just 10, Ulman would have the school system and Recreation and Parks split the replacement costs.
"I think everyone would agree that we would like to see the state alcohol tax money start this," Milani said, as the small crowd clapped in agreement.
Ralph Albano, a Columbia resident who served on the subcommittee that studied the issue with Milani, said the Hammond High School boosters and PTSA support the funding scenario that would have a turf field installed at Hammond this summer. He explained that the school is in dire need of field space, as it sends several teams off-site to practice, which has raised safety concerns.
"The sooner the better applies to our situation at Hammond," Albano said.
John Byrd, the director of Recreation and Parks, agreed with the need to get the turf field projects started.
"The sooner we start the more money we save in the future, both in maintenance cost and construction costs, which will undoubtedly increase," he said.
One of the benefits of artificial turf fields that Byrd and several of the supporters touted is they eliminate the need to reschedule, or in some cases cancel, games because of bad weather, except in extreme conditions.
Columbia resident Jeff Plotkin, the father of two varsity football players at Atholton, pointed out that junior varsity games that are canceled because of weather are not often rescheduled.
"The JV kids work just as hard, practice just as hard," he said. "To just flat out cancel their games is disheartening … and leaves them with the distinct impression that they just don't matter."
Columbia resident Hal Kenny, speaking on behalf of the Thunder Soccer Club, argued that there's a huge demand for field space and that many of the county fields are not in the best condition.
"Quality of fields and field space are woeful in comparison to neighboring counties," he said.
Board members did not respond to much of the testimony, with exception of newly elected board chairwoman Sandra French, who asked the supporters to give their thoughts on increased use of stadium lights.
The draft proposal Ulman presented to the board, she said, "will almost demand daily use of the lights, and that has me extremely concerned."
In 2004, French said, the board established an agreement with the communities that surround the high schools that limits the use of stadium lights.
"In order to maximize the use of the fields and justify the expense, we would need to extend use of the lights," Byrd responded.
However, he said, there is new lighting technology that would minimize the impact on the community. Some county fields already have lights that Byrd said have "no up glow" and the stadium fields would likely get such lights when the existing ones need replaced.
The board has yet to decide if it even wants to pursue a partnership with Recreation and Parks. Ulman had previously expressed frustration that the October and November letters he sent the board advocating for a shared-use agreement had gone unanswered.
Former board chairwoman Janet Siddiqui sent a letter responding to Ulman on Dec. 7, but did not indicate whether or not the board would support a shared-use agreement.
"At this time, we are forwarding options and related information to the superintendent and have requested that he develop a recommendation for the board's consideration," Siddiqui wrote.