Currently, the Windham Southeast School District Board is considering a proposal to spend nearly $1.1 million dollars on installation of synthetic turf for Natowich Field. In my previous column (in Tuesday's Reformer), I presented thoughts on health, safety and environmental concerns. I also argued for more investigation of natural grass alternatives. Here I continue the discussion presenting thoughts on fiscal and educational priorities.
Fiscal priorities and long-term costs
Over the long run, synthetic fields would cost taxpayers much more than natural grass, much more! When we factor in replacement and disposal costs along with maintenance costs of synthetic grass over an 8-year period, natural grass wins every time. "The Dirt on Turf: What You Need to Know About Synthetic Turf and Natural Grass for Athletic Fields," is a booklet by David Millar and Aaron Loan written specifically for school boards considering the installation of synthetic fields and should be required reading for anyone considering the issue (www.redhenturf.com/pdfs/TheTruthAboutArtificialTurf.pdf ). The authors determine that "Installing natural grass instead of artificial turf can save the school in excess of $1,460,000 over 20 years, money that could be spent on other projects or programs" (p. 8).
Another essential resource is the Toxic Use Reduction Institute (TURI) of UMass/Lowell. In their report, "Sports turf alternatives assessment: research update and discussion (May 25, 2017), they find that "In nearly all scenarios, the life-cycle cost of synthetic turf is higher than that of grass for an equivalent area" (p. 7). These findings are supported by yet another report, "How Taxpayers Get Fooled On The Cost of An Artificial Turf Field," by Mike Ozanian (Forbes, September 28, 2014). Ozanian argues that " taxpayers have been getting hoodwinked by bogus analysis into thinking that artificial turf fields are cheaper than natural grass." He writes that "The reality is that non-partisan studies have shown that natural grass fields are a bargain compared to artificial turf due to the huge costs taxpayers get stuck with to maintain and replace artificial turf after their warranties expire" (p. 1).
Many in favor of an artificial turf at BUHS argue that more boys and girls sports, including soccer, lacrosse and field hockey, could be played on an artificial turf that is not torn up by football games. Natural grass alternatives must be more fully explored. Jerad Minnick of the Natural Grass Advisory Group (NGAG, #Grasscantakemore) is just one of many grass experts who claim that football fields can, indeed, be well maintained using strategies that dramatically increase access to natural grass fields for use by multiple sports teams. NGAG provides education, advisory, management and analytics that not only improve field quality to allow nearly unlimited play, but also reduces field repair costs and routine maintenance. Given the stakes, I believe the cost of a consultancy by NGAG — or a similar organization — would be money well spent.
The purchase of land adjacent to BUHS to add a second athletic field has also been proposed as a possible solution to issues facing athletic programs at BUHS. Despite objections by some who see artificial turf as the one and only solution, the School Board wisely chose to investigate this idea further.
Recently, we heard citizens passionately debate the expenditure of less than $100,000 on the position of Sustainability Coordinator for Brattleboro. School board members may also recall the heated meeting of January 8, 2019 where budget cut proposals were considered for the Diversity Coordinator, Technology Education and Integration at BAMS, the culinary arts program at WRCC, and other programs. Undoubtedly, the school board will continue to face difficult budgetary decisions in the years to come. Cheaper natural grass alternatives need to be fully explored before making a decision on synthetic fields that pose greater health risks, substantially more funding and greater burden on the taxpayer.
Athletics are very much an important part of the education for our young people. Student athletes exhibit higher self-esteem, drop out less, are less likely to engage in high risk behaviors, often do better academically, and demonstrate personal responsibility and the "grit" that the Harvard educator, Dr. Angela Duckworth, says is so vitally important for success in schools and life and what separates the most successful people from the rest. Indeed, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) touts the tremendous benefits of organized sports (see The Case for High School Activities, NFHS, www.nfhs.org/articles/the-case-for-high-school-activities).
But the NFHS also touts the benefits of other activities that are vital to a quality education including: music, speech, theater, debate, and many other activities. (Some in the community may recall the BUHS marching band performing in D.C. for President Obama's inauguration). The point is that the costs of an artificial turf could very well, in the long run, threaten other extra-curricular activities that currently add so much value to a BUHS education.
Nobody wants higher property taxes in Brattleboro, but according to the BUHS District #6 FY 2019 Budget Report " large contributions from fund balance cannot be repeatedly used to make up for a shortfall in state aid. Without the use of the balance this year, either services would have been cut far more significantly, or the local property tax increase for the schools as a whole (BUHS plus Brattleboro Town School District) would have been higher." Given the fact that an artificial turf would cost not only over a million dollars for initial installation, but nearly a million more in 8 to 10 years or so when it would require replacement (after destroying the sub-soil making it impossible to revert to natural grass), does it make good fiscal sense to invest in a synthetic field at this time, a time of declining statewide student enrollment and perhaps even less state funding? Does it really make good sense to borrow three-quarters of a million dollars to fund a project when so many valid arguments — educational, environmental, fiscal and health and safety — are weighing against it?
The debate boils down to making an informed decision based not only on empirical research, but also on values. I trust the school board will weigh those values — particularly at this time of climate crisis, necessary fiscal constraint, health and safety unknowns, and educational priorities — and arrive at a decision that is prudent and best for everyone.
Tim Maciel, Ed. D., is a member of Brattleboro Common Sense. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.