Fairfax County high schools are seeking help from the private sector to help offset the cost of installing expensive synthetic turf fields.
“I totally think it’s a need [not a want],” said Starr Karl, Westfield High School field hockey coach. “Especially with the fall seasons we’ve had this year with all that rain. We had rain at 75 percent of our games and we only had to cancel one because of lightning.”
In 2010, Westfield became the third county high school to install a turf field. Today, seven of the county’s 25 regular high schools have turf, with as many as six more aiming to build one soon, according to school system staff.
Depending on the number of fields installed, turf projects can range in cost from more than $500,000 to about $2 million, parents said.
Most schools are trying to emulate a public-private partnership used at Herndon High School, which installed turf in 2010.
“It all took place in less than one year,” said Mike Mahoney, former Herndon High director of student activities who retired this past summer and is considered the driving force behind the $1.3 million turf stadium and practice fields.
“You have to have the partnerships,” he said. “Some of these youth [sports] associations have a lot of money put aside to support projects like this. … All of this has to be financed without Fairfax County Public Schools money. And if you’re going to fundraise on your own, it’s going to take forever.”
Herndon’s motivation to fundraise through partnerships with youth sports leagues, community groups, athletic boosters and the county Parks Authority made the school the leading example of ‘how to turf’ by school system officials, said Bill Curran, director of student activities and athletics.
“Herndon is a great example of where we have five different groups agreeing to use those fields and it worked out great,” he said. “What’s unique about McLean is it’s a one-field school. With the two-field schools like Herndon and Marshall [high schools], it’s easy.”
Curran was referring to an easier splitting of field time between high school athletic programs and the youth sports associations they partner with. Field time became a major issue impeding McLean High School’s ability to gain funding for its fields.
Nearly two years have passed since McLean began talks to partner with youth sports associations to pay for fields.
“We have a significant shortage of fields in the McLean area now and the shortage is primarily lit fields,” said Bill Gray, a McLean Youth Soccer Association board member and parent of athletes at McLean High.
Outside of the high school, the area has two fields with lighting at Lewinsville Park, he said. The association supports about 250 soccer teams, as well as 25 to 30 football teams and as many as 650 lacrosse players, all of which need field time.
“You can imagine the chaos with all those teams on two fields and those fields get torn up from the use… It’s nothing but dirt,” Gray said.
Because of this, the association approached McLean and Langley high schools to see if either or both would partner to pay for fields.
The Langley partnership never took off, Gray said, but McLean was able to broker a deal that would give the school a turf stadium and practice field for about $2.5 million. The youth leagues would have invested $300,000 to use the fields during the evenings when high school games and practices were not taking place.
“Realistically the high school could use three turf fields. But one field would help us a lot,” said Jennifer Bargerstock, a McLean parent and athletic boosters president. “Right now we’re busing kids all over just for fields.”
Fellow parent Brenda Bonk said, “This fall especially, we had to cancel so many events [because of rain]. It just reinforces the need for this.”
Canceling games also can mean a loss in revenue for athletic boosters, which sell concessions during home games, parents said.
“Unfortunately because McLean is on such as small lot, we couldn’t get support from the neighbors to put in lights” said Bargerstock, adding the need for lit fields was an important factor in gaining funding support from youth sports groups, which use the fields after regular practice times.
Plans for turf at McLean were derailed when neighbors complained about stadium lighting, she said. Efforts were made to accommodate neighbors by limiting night-time lights to 8 p.m., those in the partnership said. However, this limit did not work for the youth sports associations.
With the number of fields planned for McLean dropped to one, Gray said, “The whole package just didn’t work anymore.
“If the whole [stadium] turf field costs $750,000, [and] you’re only getting to use the field on Saturday and Sunday for $300,000, it doesn’t make sense financially,” he added. “The school was paying about $40 an hour and the youth groups were paying about $50. But when the time got cut back, we were paying about $100 an hour.”
The first county high school to install turf was West Springfield in 2006, said Kevin Sneed, director of Design and Construction Services. Chantilly High School is the latest to install turf in 2011, using athletic boosters and youth groups to fund the project.
Fairfax County leads the region in number of turf fields. Two of Loudoun County’s 12 high schools have turf fields, both of which were installed when the schools were built in 2010. Similarly, Prince William County’s Patriot High School, which opened this fall, included a turf field during construction. Arlington’s school system has three high schools with turf fields, all paid for by the school system and community groups that rent them.
Every project in Fairfax County has relied on either development proffers brokered by the County Board of Supervisors or public-private partnerships, Sneed said.
“No one really knows what the life span is,” Curran said, adding the range could be seven to 20 years.
Most of the fields have warranties for eight years, and are expected to last about 10 before needing renovations.
“The boosters are required to contribute $15,000 a year, but the purpose of it is at the end of the 1- year [projected life span of a field] you have to replace the carpet,” Sneed said. “You can’t just go back and add grass.” Below turf fields is stone that holds in water, which is then filtered out through trenches that are as deep as 5 feet.
“The fields, from a playing perspective, are great. The way we design them, they can take 4 inches of rain an hour without flooding,” Sneed added.
School administrators said the public-private partnerships that have had the most success have been at schools where two fields — rather than one — are turfed because the two fields generate a better sharing of resources.
Down to one field, McLean High School’s athletic community still is working on creating funding options for installing turf at its stadium.
Herndon football coach Joe Sheaffer said at his school the turf helped relieve space constraints.
“For us, it was more about facility space. We just don’t have the space to practice multiple teams on; especially when it rains,” he said. “Our injuries are probably down because of it… The newer surfaces are so much softer. … especially in winter.
“For us, it’s really just the ability to practice without disruption,” he added. “This year has been really bad with the wet weather. We really haven’t had any disruptions.”