This story was corrected on July 18, 2013. An explanation follows the story.
All high schools could have two or more synthetic turf athletic fields if a proposal for their expansion and funding is approved. Earlier this week, Fairfax County Public Schools officials and the County Board of Supervisors heard a report recommending the expansion, which aims to help close the gap in field time.
“[Synthetic turf] allows for year-round use in most weather, both during and immediately after rain events,” said Christopher Leonard, director of Fairfax County Department of Neighborhood and Community Services. “Most people don’t realize [that if] you get rain on a Tuesday, it can be bright and sunny on a Wednesday but you can’t play. You’re going to tear up the field.”
Putting in a turf field can increase playing time by 62 percent, according to a report by the Synthetic Turf Task Force, a panel created jointly by the county and schools. Fairfax County has 47 turf fields currently in use and another 20 pending construction. Most are rectangular fields, but there are three turfed diamonds.
“Synthetic turf fields and lights should be standard components in new school construction and future capital improvement renovations. At high school sites, the two-field synthetic turf model should be standard,” Leonard said.
Most of the synthetic turf fields in the county are school based. But turf access is not equal across the county. Sixteen high schools currently have fields, while eight do not.
“You’ll see that the high schools without synthetic turf fields are all in Lee, Mount Vernon or Mason (districts),” Leonard said. “And there’s a reason for that. When you look at the community groups we have there, to try to expect them to leverage the dollars, it’s just not there.”
Turf fields are estimated to cost between $600,000 and $800,000 depending on the location of construction. Community groups and school-based booster clubs have contributed nearly half of the funding for turf fields at schools. A majority of additional funds come from park bonds. Other funding includes user fees and development proffers. No FCPS bond funds have been used to pay for synthetic turf.
Should the county and schools move forward with plans to add fields to the remaining eight high schools, the cost is estimated at $12 million for 15 fields ($800,000 each). JEB Stuart would potentially be the only school to add only one turf field due to limited space on its campus.
Several funding options were proposed to officials involving public and community-raised dollars.
One option includes creating an ability-to-pay model for high schools based on the number of students eligible for the free and reduced meal program, which is used as a gauge of poverty within schools.
For example, as given in the report, community groups affiliated with Thomas Jefferson and South County high schools could pay 25 percent of costs while groups connected to Stuart, Mount Vernon, West Potomac and Edison high schools, which have higher levels of students from low-income families, could pay 6.25 percent ($100,000). Hayfield Secondary fell between these groupings and could see community groups contributing 12.5 percent ($200,000).
“Clearly through the two boards, there will be budget issues,” said Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully District), who met with the School Board on Monday. “We are already allocating a certain amount each year for the maintenance of the fields…The biggest policy change would be on the School Board side in terms of putting capital money toward construction.”
Several School Board Members questioned whether or not community groups should pay more than the recommended ability-to-pay model.
“I am concerned about the tremendous financial burden already taken on by some community groups,” School Board Member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock District) said in an email. “You can look at Lake Braddock where [out of] $1.2 million, $600,000 is coming from school boosters and $600,000 is coming from their youth clubs. It’s simply too much.”
During the meeting Monday, School Board member Ted Velkoff (At-large) said athletics cannot supersede academics in the budget.
“On the FCPS side, there was discussion of possibly redirecting bond funds,” he said. “And that was kind of an issue for me because as everyone knows we haven’t got enough funding to keep up with the renovation of our schools as it is. And I think the implication of this is that in order to meet these goals we would need to take some money out of renovations of buildings and putting it into turf fields.”
Correction: This story was updated to clarify the context of School Board member Megan McLaughlin’s quote on turf field funding.