Protecting Our Turf: Artificial Alternatives for School Fields
DeNisco, Alison, District Administration
Gone are the days of squishy grass and pothole-laden school fields: artificial turf fields are becoming an increasingly popular option for districts nationwide for their ease of use and cost-effective maintenance. There are approximately 8,000 turf fields in the United States, including at public K12 schools, and the number is growing, according to Rick Doyle, president of the Synthetic Turf Council. In 2011 alone, nearly 1,000 synthetic turf fields were installed in North American schools, colleges, parks, and professional sports stadiums, compared to just 400 fields installed in 2003, Doyle says. "More and more high schools are seeing the benefits of synthetic turf, particularly as it allows them to play all day every day, which is impossible on a grass field, and save money," he adds.
Artificial turf was first used to replace natural grass in Major League Baseball at the Houston Astrodome in 1966. This turf had little resemblance to what is used today--it was often built over a concrete base, causing more injuries and altered playing conditions (for example, a baseball bounced higher and faster on artificial turf). FieldTurf modernized turf fields in the 1990s to replicate natural grass, providing a softer and safer but durable surface, according to Darren Gill, vice president of global marketing at FieldTurf. Today, he adds, there are at least 20 more companies that offer similar artificial turf services. These fields are usually made of plastic grass and rubber infill, and resemble natural grass fields.
When considering installing an artificial turf field in a district, administrators must consider funding, sustainability, potential health risks, and relationships with community groups and school neighbors. These fields provide an opportunity for administrators to connect with constituents on a project that could benefit the whole community.
Cost and Community Support
An 80,000-square-foot field from FieldTurf costs an average of $750,000, including base preparation, materials, and maintenance over a 10-year period. While natural grass is cheaper to install, at about $570,000, it costs more to maintain and has fewer options for usage (for example, the amount it can be played on during a school day without damage), according to Gill. With excavation work, a turf field takes almost two months to install, he adds.
While these fields are a large expense, many districts gain full funding through community groups. For example, last June, the school board of the Fort Worth ISD in Texas, the heart of football country, agreed to allocate $1.4 million of noninstructional funds to purchase turf fields for two high schools, and two booster clubs each presented a plan to the district to reimburse the costs. The Paschal Legacy Project had been raising funds for athletics upgrades for years, according to its website, and the Arlington Heights High School All Sports Booster Club gained increased community support, as well. The fields were ready for play by the start of the school year. Both booster groups will pay the full projected cost of about $710,000 per field by September 2017 with community member donations.
"The Fort Worth ISD believes these projects are a wonderful opportunity to support school improvement through public-private partnerships," says Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Walter Dansby. "While the district is providing the [financial] security, the booster clubs at both schools are shouldering the expense."
A major advantage to artificial turf fields is easy maintenance, according to Jim Dobmeier, president of ATurf, a mid-size field builder focused on high school fields. "Once it's installed, maintenance is very minimal--a couple of hours once or twice a month," Dobmeier says. To maintain the field, a custodian can use a machine with a brush, typically pulled behind a small vehicle, to erect the fibers when they get matted down from use. …