2018 | Schools

School Board Approves Artificial Turf Fields for Einstein High, Julius West Middle

Play surfaces will be installed through an agreement between MCPS, Montgomery Soccer Inc.

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The field at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville


Artificial turf fields are coming to Albert Einstein High in Kensington and Julius West Middle in Rockville.

Montgomery County school board members Tuesday awarded a $3.7 million contract to a South Carolina-based company to install the two new fields. The decision came as a relief to some parents at Einstein who complain their worn-down athletic field is no longer safe for student athletes.

Philip Curtin, president of the Einstein booster club, said years of use have left the grass field unable to drain properly.

“The result is numerous holes and gouges in the surface and seemingly permanent loss of grass in the middle of the field. Meanwhile, the edges of the field drop sharply to drainage areas that are hazardous for athletes running fully speed toward those areas,” Curtin told board members Tuesday.

But other parents harbor doubts about the safety of the artificial fields and have raised concerns about the mineral substance used to fill the spaces between synthetic fibers.

“Artificial turf with alternative infill is an experimental product that has no federal or local government oversight to ensure public safety,” Kristina Gryboski, whose daughter attends Einstein, wrote in testimony submitted to the school board. “Continuous changes to the infill type to address health concerns make the choice of artificial turf increasingly expensive and risky.”

She asked officials to build a new, state-of-the-art natural grass field at Einstein instead of putting in the artificial turf.

MCPS has argued the infill substance, called clinoptilolite zeolite, meets safety standards and has metal levels below the European Standard for children’s toys. Three new fields at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown use the same type of infill, the school system has reported. 

The new synthetic play surface at Einstein is being added through an agreement between Montgomery County Public Schools and Montgomery Soccer Inc., a nonprofit youth soccer organization based in Rockville. In 2016, MSI agreed to pay up to $5.2 million for three artificial fields in exchange for the rights to use them.

The Board of Education in April approved the first of these turf fields for installation at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda and considered the remaining two projects on Tuesday. The contract went to Sprinturf LLC, which will do the work at Julius West for $2.66 million and at Einstein for $1.05 million; MSI had agreed to spend up to $2.4 million to construct turf fields at Julius West and $1.2 million for Einstein.

The installation project at Einstein will happen over the summer so the field will be ready for early fall, an MCPS spokesman said. The project at Julius West will come a little later in the fall.

Before the vote, school board members questioned staff about how MCPS cares for fields throughout the school system. Andrew Zuckerman, the school system’s chief operating officer, said MCPS is about to take a comprehensive look at inequities in field conditions countywide and at correcting some of these disparities.

MCPS does allocate funding to each school for field maintenance, but schools supplement this aid through fundraising and support from booster clubs. Because affluent communities can contribute more funds, some schools are spending upwards of $60,000 or $70,000 to maintain their fields. By contrast, only about $20,000 goes toward upkeep at Einstein’s field each year, Zuckerman said.

“We want to look at how to address systemically this disparity that’s gone on for decades,” Zuckerman said, adding that artificial fields provide one solution for eliminating the quality gap.

Board member Jill Ortman-Fouse, who has expressed reservations about the safety of artificial fields, said it is possible to keep grass play surfaces in good shape if they’re well-designed. The natural field at Bethesda Elementary is heavily used by the community and is still in great condition, she noted.

“There’s been a great deal of change in the real grass industry,” she said, encouraging staff to consider the relative costs of caring for grass versus replacing artificial fields every decade.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.