Hucker Urges School System Against Buying Artificial Turf Fields Until Other Maintenance Needs Are Met

County Council member testified before Board of Education in opposition to $11 million artificial turf field plan

By Aaron Kraut of Bethesda Magazine

The county school system’s proposal to outfit all high schools with artificial turf playing fields ran into some early opposition this week from County Council member Tom Hucker.

Hucker, who represents Silver Spring, testified at a Board of Education (BOE) public hearing Monday on the recommended six-year capital budgetreleased late last month by Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers.

After testifying in support of the addition projects Bowers proposed for elementary schools in Silver Spring, Hucker spoke out against the interim superintendent’s proposal to include $11 million in the $1.72 billion budget to begin installing the artificial turf fields at the 19 county high schools without one. Six high schools already have artificial turf fields.

Hucker told BOE members that money shouldn’t be spent on artificial turf fields until Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) addresses a backlog of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) upgrades at schools around the county.

“As long as we face huge needs on maintenance, to me we shouldn’t be spending millions on unnecessary luxuries like artificial turf fields until we have a safe classroom and adequate heating and air conditioning for each of our school children,” Hucker said. “We should commit ourselves together not to spend any dollars on luxuries like artificial turf until that day.”

Panorama of the artificial turf field at Walter Johnson High School, via Flickr user WJ Soccer

Hucker and the other eight council members will have final say on the school system’s capital budget when they take up the county’s entire six-year capital budget next spring.

Bowers recommended the $11 million over the next six years to complement any private fundraising from school booster clubs or other organizations that would be put toward paying for artificial turf fields.

The Thomas S. Wootton High School athletics booster club, MCPS and Bethesda Soccer youth soccer league combined to pay for a $1.2 million artificial turf field that now serves as the Rockville school’s main field.

Bowers said constant use of existing grass fields, by school teams and by outside community groups, was contributing to unsafe playing conditions.

“MCPS school fields are constantly used by schools and the community and the artificial turf will provide safe playing conditions for all participants in sporting activities,” Bowers said.

He recommended budgeting $2.5 million toward the program in fiscal year 2017.

His recommendation didn’t detail what kind of artificial turf fields MCPS and partner groups will pursue. Concerns about the possibly carcinogenic chemicals in crumb rubber, which fill traditional turf fields, inspired the County Council to pass a resolution earlier this year pushing for turf fields filled with organic materials only.

In his recommended capital budget, Bowers proposed a substantial increase in funding to address a backlog of about $160 million worth of HVAC projects, according to recommended budget documents.

MCPS says the school system would require $28 million per year for the next 10 years to address the entire backlog of HVAC projects, meaning Bowers’ recommendation of $122 million over the entire six-year budget “only begins to address this problem,” according to Bowers’ budget proposal.