School Board Stalls on Turf Field Project

The question of whether or not the school district should spend the money to implement a turf field is one that has garnered a lot of attention over the past few weeks, but why is it shrouded in such controversy?

Proponents of the turf field include the outdoor sports teams as well as many members of the marching band, who practice outside.

The idea of getting a turf field is not a new one either. The Light up the Night campaign that the South Eastern School District Board of Directors and the Sports Boosters club co-sponsored considered it the fourth step in the overarching project. The Light up the Night campaign has currently stalled at this point.

Previous Superintendent Rona Kaufmann also proposed it to the board in October of 2013, according to the Committee of the Whole meeting minutes.

The reasons for wanting a turf field can be boiled down to two simple things. One, the fields that are currently in use are quickly becoming unusable. Secondly, it puts many of our sports teams at a disadvantage not practicing on a turf field.

Buildings and Grounds does an excellent job of maintaining the current fields that we have; however, there is only so much that can be done in order to keep the fields playable. In extremely wet seasons, like what we experienced last year, it becomes practically impossible to get a usable field.

In fact, it did become impossible, and this meant that our girls lacrosse team had to give up a number of their home field advantage games and play somewhere else because our fields were unusable to them.

The condition and usability of our current fields has an effect that ripples out past just the girls lacrosse team; in fact, Superintendent Jeffrey Hughes said: “We brought this [turf field] up because the weather over the last two seasons has caused the athletic department to have to cancel and move and do a lot of changes.”

There is also the fact that the conditions that our fields are currently in could allow for greater injury than a turf field. Many of our fields are not properly set up to drain water effectively, so even when the fields are in a condition to be considered playable, there is an excess of mud and large holes in the field, leaving players more prone to injury.

Kaufmann acknowledged the potential for danger in the October 2013 committee of the whole meeting. According to the minutes, she went as far as to attribute some student injuries to the field conditions.

Coaches agree that the fields could pose the threat of injury to athletes.

“The game of field hockey requires a smooth playing surface, free of divots and ruts.  This past season, we had to avoid playing and practicing on parts of our field as they were full of slippery muddy patches with no grass.  On dry days, we had to deal with uneven surfaces which made the ball jump unexpectedly and create unsafe conditions as well as fouls called against the team for dangerous play,” said Field Hockey Coach Beverly Whiteford.

“If we get large amounts of rain (like we did this past year) you can’t play on the surface due to it being grass. The field does not drain well, and when the ground is wet/muddy, safety is our main priority. Unfortunately due to that, many teams only get limited games or none at all in the stadium,” said Head Football Coach Christopher Grube.

In October of 2018, according to the Committee of the Whole minutes, Buildings and Grounds Director Brian McCleary called the fields “destroyed.”

A turf field would help to avoid both of the aforementioned issues, because it allows for water to drain straight through the substrate and dissipate.

Another issue with the current fields is the excessive amount of use they  receive over the course of a year.

As we only have three fields and many outdoor sports teams, the fields get used everyday, and they garner much wear and tear from it.

A turf field would hold up much better than any grass field ever could, as it requires little to no maintenance.

Even beyond the need for it in school sports, a turf field would have community wide benefits. Girl’s Lacrosse Coach Kelly Wetzel said, “I think turf fields are a great idea not just for our high school, but also for youth sports.”

Grube elicited a similar response, saying: “Our entire school community will benefit from putting turf in the stadium. In many respects, this is a game changer for our student-athletes. Our youth programs will benefit and many other organizations throughout the community.”

A turf field could be used for community sports, as well as things like graduation where a large scale event is being hosted outside.

So, the question becomes, why the controversy? In short, it is due to the lack of information flow coming from the school board and district administration.

For example, the board and administration recently decided to release a survey to the taxpayers of South Eastern School District.

The survey asked four questions: one asked if taxpayers supported looking into getting a turf field, one asked if they supported the installation of the field if all got the chance to use it, one question asked if  the survey takers would support a tax increase to pay for the turf field, and the final question asked if the survey taker had children in the district under the age of 18.

Here’s the issue with this method of surveying. In my opinion, board members are elected to represent and decide for the members of the district what the best course of action will be for district issues.

In this case, while they are trying to involve community members, they have released little to no information about the turf fields prior to the survey. Leaving people in the dark, then asking them about raising taxes for a field they knew nothing about before a survey was in their mailbox, is misleading at its best and purposely manipulative at its worst.

The format of the questions imply that in order to get a turf field, the district would have to raise taxes. However, I reviewed the 2018-2019 budget and found that there was an excess of $2.9 million in the unassigned fund balance.

While I understand these exact funds will not necessarily remain the same for future budgets, I don’t believe there will be an excess of expenditures of $2 million dollars for one year.

At the November 2018 committee of the whole meeting, the most recent estimate from A-Turf was $791,000 dollars. So, in my opinion, there should be funds readily available in the future to move forward with the project.

In an effort to understand the hold up, I went directly to the board to ask them questions about the turf field project. When I attempted to ask my questions, President James Roberts and the board lawyer Brooke Say informed me that the board meeting did not function entirely as a public forum, and that the board members could not answer my questions at that time.

After this, board secretary Mary Childress offered to send my questions to the board members individually following the meeting.

Only board member Joseph Devilbiss responded to my questions.

The questions that I asked were in an attempt to build a general timeline for where the turf field project is. Devilbiss responded: “As an individual, I feel, upon the completion of the current survey, there will be enough information to make a decision. As for a time schedule, much depends on the date a decision is made, contract and construction time and weather.”

The other eight board members: Teresea Arrendondo, Brian Henz, Brian Hoffman, Travis Moore, James Roberts, James Smith, Mitchell Smith, and Carrie Traeger did not respond.

This is exactly the kind of lack of flow of information that I referenced earlier. It needs to change. This will be a continuing issue if community members do not make their voices heard.

I would encourage anyone with an opinion to attend the next board meeting on April 18 in order to share it.

Having attended a large number of meetings over the past two years, I can safely say that this is one of few, if not the only time, that I have seen continuous amounts of people attend the meetings and voice their opinions. This is something that needs to be done in order to ensure that continuation of the project.