It's artificial turf versus real dollars

Various factors go into West Allis decision on redoing school field

June 26, 2012

West Allis - Safety factors have driven West Allis-West Milwaukee School District officials to opt for synthetic turf when the all-high school/soccer field at Nathan Hale High School is redone.

When that will be hasn't yet been decided.

During a work session last week, the West Allis-West Milwaukee School Board took note of research that suggests head injuries are reduced by 44 percent when certain kinds of artificial turf is used instead of grass.

"If they're going to risk their ankles and well-being, it's up to us to provide a good field," said School Board member Sue Sujecki.

A number of other schools either already have synthetic turf or will have next season, school officials noted.

Synthetic turf is more expensive - $390,000 to $450,000 compared with $250,000 to $350,000 for grass - to install, but it costs less to maintain and is more reliable because it doesn't depend rainfall and recovery time after use.

Uncertain project

While synthetic turf may be favored, the board has not yet approved going ahead with the field makeover project, and not everyone is convinced the time is right.

Grass or synthetic, either way, it's a lot of money, said School Board President Sue Stalewski, who sounded a cautionary note on behalf of taxpayers.

Stalewski acknowledged she is unconvinced that synthetic turf is so much safer. If indeed it is, what about the practice fields, where athletes spend a lot more of their time? The board needs to be able to answer questions like this from taxpayers, she said.

Also, the field installation estimates don't include any drainage correction costs, officials acknowledged.

Available funding

The reasons the district is considering redoing the field now include the availability of a $200,000 National Football League grant - part of $2.5 million the NFL is giving million this year to refurbish playing fields in 15 cities, includin West Allis, to promote safety in sports.

District officials believe that grant will only pay for artificial turf, Superintendent Kurt Wachholz said.

The schools also have a $50,000 donation from an anonymous donor.

The rest of the cost could come from fund balance that would be replenished from community fundraising, sponsorships and limited naming rights, school officials suggested.

Field troubles

Another reason for redoing the field sooner than later, with or without synthetic turf, is that its drains poorly.

A game last season could not be held because of poor field conditions, Wachholz said, noting that the field often gets muddy and water pools in a number of places during wet weather.

Wachholz spoke with parents, coaches and booster clubs who want to improve field's drainage, which the district has been talking about for years, he said.

More than 117 events, mostly football and soccer games, take place on the field every season from both high schools and other schools. Wachholz pointed out that when the district went to one shared field, the board made a commitment to take care of it. About all the schools are able to do is overseed and aerate, he said.

The only way to fix the drainage is to dig up the field.

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