Benefield: Struggling to maintain our playing fields

It is hard to imagine worse timing for Montgomery.

When the football and soccer field at the high school and its track were closed suddenly and without warning in late October, the football team was on the eve of a postseason appearance and the soccer teams were less than a week away from tryouts.

Those carefully crafted game schedules between the highly successful girls and boys soccer programs? Toss ’em. It is expected that all Vikings games will be on the road this season.

The reason? The turf the Vikings have been playing on for 14 years was deemed unplayable and a safety risk.

When Principal Randy Burbank sent out an email to the school community on Oct. 25 announcing that the field would be shut down immediately, he wrote that the lifespan of a ?typical synthetic field is ?10-15 years. It turns out that number, learned in a series of conversations with Santa Rosa City School District officials since the closure, has been revised to 8-10 years.

That number is important. The most conservative math puts the field four years past its safe, usable lifespan. Worst-case scenario is that kids have been running around that field six years longer than was still considered to be safe.

By either calculation, the field at Montgomery was well beyond its replacement date. Coaches describe walking the field and gluing letters and line markings back to the turf to eliminate tripping hazards. Seams were clearly visible.

There have been no reports of injury attributed to the condition of the field, according to district officials.

Since the closure, district officials have said kids were not in danger. In his email, Burbank said the closure was meant to “minimize potential injuries to our student athletes.” But the immediate, middle-of-the-football season shutdown seems to send a different message. An urgent one. On a Thursday afternoon the football team was practicing there, but by Thursday night it was deemed unplayable - and a Friday night junior-varsity contest was moved to Healdsburg.

“I don’t believe they were in danger. We are doing this as a preventive measure,” said Rick Edson, assistant superintendent of Santa Rosa City Schools. “It’s a matter of minimizing any associated risk, so we felt that it was better to start on this project sooner rather than later.”

“This project” is the long-overdue replacement of Montgomery’s football and soccer field, as well as the track. And “sooner” now means right this very second. The field is being torn up as of this writing.

And this, despite years of, at the very least, grumbling about the state of the field and, at the most, vocal complaints. Edson acknowledged that.

“There has been concern from both the school site and district office about the field out there,” he said.

Yet it’s unclear what kind of regular maintenance or testing has been done on Montgomery’s field or any of the district’s other four high school all-weather surfaces. The problems at Montgomery came to full light after the district accepted an offer from the company that worked on the installation of a new field at Maria Carrillo last school year to test the fields at the other four high schools.

The findings were that Montgomery’s situation was dire, but the company also determined all fields and tracks - at Piner, Santa Rosa and Elsie Allen - needed to be replaced. A second opinion was sought and it, too, came back with the same recommendation: Get this done.

The work at Montgomery is underway. The work at the other three campuses is scheduled to take place this summer. The estimated cost for all four projects is $7.6 million. Maria Carrillo was the last of the district’s five high schools to get an all-weather field, and that work was completed last school year.

“Obviously we have to make real-time decisions when it comes to student safety,” said school board president Jenni Klose. “As soon as we learned that this had become a safety issue, we had to spend the money and replace the field.”

But the timing, in the middle of the school year and just as soccer season is getting underway, points to a larger issue and what looks like a lack of preparation and planning. Emergencies happen, but an overnight shutdown of an oft-used field should not.

The money to pay for it will come from the $229 million in bond funds that voters approved in 2014. Of that, $175 million is for high school projects. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the bond money is finite and the list of needs across Sonoma County’s largest school district are bordering on the extraordinary. The facilities master plan has identified $1.2 billion in needs.

On the Montgomery campus alone, the master plan outlines $98.5 million in projects needed to keep students “warm, safe and dry.” On the list are old classroom wings, restrooms, gyms, locker rooms and a cafeteria in need of “major renovation.” Elsewhere, portable classrooms are “well beyond their useful service life.”

So into that mix, drop the $1.9 million field project.

“Yes, this is an unplanned for expense at this time, so we will have to do some re-evaluation,” Klose said. “We are in constant flux with respect to priorities.”

High school student-athletes are not the only people who use the district’s fields. Teams rent practice space; leagues rent fields for games. The school and district collect money from outside groups for use of the facilities.

But when I asked for information on rental rates and totals of how much use each high school’s athletic fields get, no one had an answer. According to district spokeswoman Beth Berk, that information is still being gathered so that a presentation can be made to the school board at a meeting after the first of the year.

For the amount of money being spent on installation - and now, hopefully, maintenance - I find it troubling that a clear user fee schedule is not readily accessible. And how much is being collected annually? That is unclear, too.

The facilities are community assets. But they are also a district responsibility.

I’m not endorsing locking access to tracks and fields at district high schools, but when entire youth leagues are reserving space and renting the fields for weeks on end, there ought to be a transparent fee scale and reckoning of what is collected.

And no, those fees are not going to put much of a dent in the $1.9 million price tag for the field’s replacement, but knowing what is collected and what is done with it would go a long way toward injecting confidence in district oversight.

I don’t begrudge the investment in new fields. First, there was clearly a safety issue at Montgomery or the field would not have been shut down overnight.

In addition, I agree with a coach who told me that athletics - and by extension, the fields kids play on - can be a huge part of the high school experience for more than just student-athletes.

But I believe the field upgrades should be treated as investments. It would be unwise to install the turf and track and not give it a second thought for the next decade. The district should make sure regular maintenance is occurring. The district should find out and make clear what people pay to use them and which schools are getting the most use.

With this kind of money being spent, a more thoughtful, responsible approach to maintenance and upkeep should be a given.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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