Kearns and Sons RS Aesthetics

Concerns over athletic field plan

In a recent newspaper article, Hamilton school district superintendent, Mr. Tom Korst, said: “We’ll put the athletic complex out to bid right after our presentation, late February-ish, and begin construction as soon as the ground thaws.”

This is not quite true. The school board has already, as of January 2nd, sent out calls requesting information from “pre-approved vendors” on a list from Montana Cooperative Services (a privately-owned business, not a state agency). The school district provided prospective vendors with a list of specifications for a synthetic turf football field. Companies are to reply with cost estimates and other technical details by January 31st. Reviewing their replies, the “building and grounds committee” will score the companies according to a rubric of “points,” then recommend the best candidate for approval by the school board.

Not calling for bids, the school board is using instead what is called in Montana Code Annotated (state law) “alternate project delivery” contracting. By this process, the board does not necessarily award a contract to the “lowest responsible bidder”— rather to the most qualified offer, as rated by points. This seems sensible and fair.

However, Montana Code requires that a state agency, like a school board, can use this “alternative” search process only if it will not “substantially diminish competition for the contract.” So our school board could be in violation.

The reason? Although the ballot language voters approved in May 2017, for $3.75 million, did not specify an artificial turf field, the “pre-approved” list of vendors includes only companies specializing in construction of “synthetic” fields with pebbled rubber “infill.” Companies expert in constructing natural grass fields are excluded — ineligible to compete for the contract.

Similarly, companies here in Ravalli County who grow grass for sport fields, or provide irrigation and other sports field maintenance, are being firmly told that the school district is already committed to a synthetic turf field.

There are two crucial topics in the comparison between synthetic turf and natural grass football fields: Cost and Safety. In some ways, the construction costs for turf and grass are about the same. Simply put, both require excavation to the depth of about two feet, and levels of gravel and sand, for drainage. The synthetic surface carpet is a dense weave of polymer (plastic) “grass” blades, holding an “infill” of fine sand mixed with tiny pebbles of rubber, sometimes also pebbled cork. For a true grass field, the sand is coated with a shallow layer of topsoil. Rolled out on top are panels of mature grass, usually a mixture of rye and Kentucky bluegrass, matted together by a fiber netting beneath.

All manufacturers of synthetic turf offer several product lines — their premier surface being the most expensive, of course. Some articles suggest the cost of a premium synthetic turf carpet, installed, can be a million dollars or more.

The school board is not asking or accepting cost estimates from grass field experts. From my research, a classic grass field surface could be approximately one-tenth the price of an artificial surface.

The board may claim great savings will be in maintenance cost. Some saving, yes. However, synthetic turf fields also require regular maintenance, with special equipment for grooming (the term is “fluffing”), because the in-fill rubber “flies out” and has to be brushed back into its plastic blades.

“Forbes,” the respected business magazine, wrote about “How Taxpayers Get Fooled on Cost of an Artificial Turf Field.” (September, 2014) “Taxpayers have been getting hoodwinked by bogus analysis into thinking artificial turf fields are cheaper than natural grass. But the reality is that non-partisan studies have shown the exact opposite — natural grass fields are a bargain compared to artificial turf due to the huge costs taxpayers get stuck with to maintain and replace artificial fields after their warrantees expire.”

Last summer the Missoula County Public Schools completed construction of a synthetic grass field at Big Sky HS, shared by the three Class AA schools. In a written statement from the Missoula school district’s Superintendent of Operations: “Frank, We are hoping to get 10+ years of turf use based on the experience of Laurel High School with a similar product. Based upon what we paid for the turf and infill and what the UofM has paid to replace their turf field, we are estimating the future replacement cost at $400-$500K.”

Last May, in the run-up for the $3.75 million bond for the sports complex, voters were NOT told that the replacement cost of the synthetic surface in ten years (or so) would costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then ten years later, again taxpayers will fund $400 to $500K, with that cost cycle continuing far into the future.

In an opinion survey by the National Football League Players Association, all the players were asked whether they thought natural grass or synthetic turf was more likely to contribute to injuries. The answer was nearly unanimous: 91.81 percent of the NFL players said artificial turf was more dangerous. 72.71 percent said they preferred to play on natural grass. The eleven “pro” fields they rated best were all natural grass fields.

Among kinds of injuries associated with synthetic turf are “turf toe,” ACL, and “foot lock,” because synthetic turf “grabs” cleats with less flexibility and “give” than real grass. “Turf burn” (to elbows and forearms) is more common and more severe on synthetic turf, which also supports a common version of “staph” bacteria (MRSA). Natural grass resists MRSA bacteria.

Heat exhaustion is more severe on artificial turf, because plastic and rubber infill absorb far more heat from sunlight than does natural grass. Very careful field temperature measurements were carried out at Brigham Young University. Field surface average temperatures between 7:00 AM and 7:00 PM ranged from 78.9 degrees (F) to 88.5 degrees (F) on a natural grass field. But on synthetic turf fields, temperature ranged from 117 degrees to 156 degrees. Temperatures higher than 122 degrees can cause skin burns in less than ten minutes.

Statistics on the cause of concussions are difficult to interpret. A certain five-year study of eight high school teams in Texas found that sixteen concussions occurred on grass fields, and ten on artificial turf. However, it could not be determined whether the concussions were caused by player-to-player contact; or contact by player-to-field surface; or player contact and field surface contact combined.

Importantly, much of the recent research on football head injury (for example, in the current issue of the medical journal “Brain”) also studies the cumulative effect of less violent but often-repeated knocks against the head, resulting in sub-concussions (sometimes called “subcussions”). Younger players —  particularly players in youth football programs before high school — are especially vulnerable to long-term brain damage by sub-concussions.

Also, a New York Times article (December 29, 2015) used the headline “Concussion Report Highlights Field Maintenance.” Here quoting: “A new report by the Concussion Legacy Foundation called attention to the link between head injuries and poorly maintained fields, especially the growing number of those made of synthetic turf. The foundation urged groundskeepers, athletic directors and sports associations to treat their fields as seriously as other protective sports equipment.  . . . (Furthermore, according to the Director of the Center for Athletic Field Safety at the University of Tennessee) Artificial fields are sold as maintenance-free — you put it down, you don’t worry about it — but honestly, they’re hardly being maintained at all.”

More than a thousand spectators watched the last football game at Haynes Field, November 15, 2017 — the Broncs’  semi-final victory over Billings Central. This was classic high school football — a thrilling contest to the last minute.

How would it have a been a better football game if it had been played on a synthetic turf field? In no way does a synthetic turf field improve the game of high school football — for the athletes, coaches, classmates and friends, family, and community.

Yes, now is the time for a new field at the Hamilton High School. Let it be a safe, fine, classic grass field.

Mr. Korst, the “building and grounds” committee, and (I fear) a majority of the board members are chasing a folly: a synthetic field, tremendously expensive in both initial cost and maintenance, and dangerous and harmful to athletes — compared to natural grass.

As mentioned earlier, the school board is pursuing this folly using an “alternative project delivery” method for awarding contracts. This method has excluded nationally respected, highly experienced companies that build natural grass fields. This contracting method also shuts out Ravalli County businesses that grow grass for athletic fields or service grass fields.

In some instances, Montana Code Annotated allows the County Superintendent to intervene in “Controversy Appeals and Hearings.” Recently I asked Ravalli County Superintendent of Schools Regina Plettenberg to consider whether she has the authority to conduct a public hearing on the manner in which the superintendent and school board are selecting contractors for the athletic complex. She will determine whether Montana Code (Title 20, Chapter. 3, Part 2. Controversy Appeals and Hearings) applies to the situation.

I hope the public will attend committee and board meetings coming up (very soon). Let us object and stop this bad plan.

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