West county school board picks cork for athletic fields

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The district board overseeing Analy and El Molino High Schools on Wednesday night approved using a more expensive infill made of cork for planned synthetic fields at the schools, a victory for a group of parents who raised health concerns about turf made of recycled tires.

With the vote, the schools may become the first in the nation to use cork as infill on fields where high school football is played, according to Jennie Bruneman, director of maintenance and operations for the West Sonoma Union High School District.

Bruneman said her research of various infill options uncovered no other high school campus in the country where cork is used on football fields. However, she said it has been used on fields for other sports, including soccer. The fields to be replaced at Analy and El Molino are used for a variety of athletic pursuits.

“For soccer, it’s a fantastic field surface,” Bruneman said of the cork option, which also is known as Purfill.

In November, the school district board voted to replace the high schools’ grass fields with synthetic turf that uses a crumb rubber infill. The board finalized construction plans for an $8 million overhaul of both schools’ stadiums in December.

But the board backed away from the rubber option after a small group of vocal parents began a campaign to halt the plans and seek revisions to the infill choice. Their argument was that because the rubber potentially contains carcinogens, playing on the surface could pose health risks for young athletes.

Wednesday night’s district board meeting at the Analy library in Sebastopol drew a large crowd, including many students. Bruneman brought samples of various infills for people to examine and touch.

The five-member board initially was split on the matter. Trustee Ted Walker made a motion to go with Bruneman’s recommendation to use an infill made of recycled turf and a plastic product known as TPE. But that motion failed to pass.

The board subsequently approved the cork option 4-0, with Walker abstaining. Board President Diane Landry changed her vote to support the measure.

“No matter what we do, we’re going to be guinea pigs,” Landry said after the meeting. “I’m feeling great about the cork right now.”

Bruneman estimated the cost of the cork infill to be about $243,800 more than the crumb rubber option. She said the combined cost also could overrun the budget for the stadium projects at both schools by about $108,000.

Bruneman said that money possibly could be recouped through lower-than-anticipated construction costs, with more money from donor groups or by dipping into a projected “buffer” of about $1.16 million from voter-approved bond proceeds earmarked for the projects. The state architect office has the final construction plans and must approve them before the district can get started.

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