Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange

Artificial Turf Controversy Resurfaces at South Orange-Maplewood BOE Meeting

The issue of artificial turf fields reared its head again in South Orange-Maplewood at Monday’s Board of Education meeting, when a resident implored the board not to approve artificial turf to repair local athletic fields.

Jane Conrad, an SOMSD parent who previously ran programming at Battery Park City Parks Conservancy, raised environmental as well as health and budgetary concerns about artificial turf, presenting the board with a packet of information to bolster her claims (see attachments below).

Last year, the BOE approved a $143 million long-range facilities plan that included an add-on option of renewing the turf field at Underhill Sports Complex and converting Ritzer Field to turf. The field renewal plans were added “in the eleventh hour” (in addition to an option for air conditioning in schools) as District Administrator Paul Roth noted, in response to community support, which in turn rushed the discussion process.

Last month, former Interim Supt. Dr. Thomas Ficarra reported the cost of the added projects as $1.2 million to replace the turf at Underhill Field, $2.1 million to turf and add lighting to Ritzer, and $16.8 million for air conditioning.

“If it’s true that we really only have twelve years to avert the worst consequences of global warming, then re-installing a 450,000-pound plastic field…is the wrong direction for our district,” said Conrad, who contended that artificial turf creates heat islands, cause flooding, and must be discarded, landfilled, or incinerated after ten years, making them even less sustainable. In addition, she said, artificial turf brings health risks for joint injury, exposure to toxins, and concussion, and are expensive to maintain.

One group of parents who are advocating for the field project to proceed as planned sent Village Green a letter to the editor contesting many of Conrad’s claims, and urging the BOE to move ahead with the original plan.

The community’s athletic fields has long been a concern; in February the issue arose as part of a presentation to the Maplewood Township Committee by a consultant, who said the condition of grass fields led to a 30% game cancellation rate and limited practice times. TC members acknowledged that the towns’ fields are at capacity and that the problem was only going to get worse as the population of children in the towns continue to climb.

Several board members expressed their own concerns about turf. Board Member Shannon Cuttle seemed caught off-guard by Conrad’s remarks, and noted that the issue hadn’t been raised at BOE meetings since they joined the board in January. “Did I miss anything?” Cuttle asked.

BOE President Annemarie Maini confirmed that since the turf project was added and the Maplewood Township Committee and the South Orange Board of Trustees both gave the nod to the district to present the plan to the Department of Education, “there hasn’t been much discussion.” Maini noted that she has tried to prepare the administration for questions and concerns the community might raise.

Meanwhile, the DOE has granted its approval, and now the ball is in the BOE’s court, with a vote on the bonding portion of the plan scheduled for Thursday, June 13. Then the proposal goes to the Board of School Estimate, which would approve funding, on July 10.

“It’s hard to vote on the artificial turf without at least having the context on an alternative,” said 1st VP Susie Adamson, who also noted the lack of time for board members to consider the options. The concern of maintenance was re-raised by Board Member Johanna Wright. “Underhill was not taken care of.”

Board Member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad asked if the board might be able to consider alternatives to artificial turf. Board Member Robin Baker asked if the BOE could just submit the turf plan request then change it later, if it decided on grass fields. Adamson asked if it could be presented as an addendum to the original plan.

Roth said if the Board of Ed voted against artificial turf, they would need to eliminate the field project for now and “start from square one” with a new approval process.  He said it is possible for the Board to approve the money for additions and renovations and cross the turf resolution off of the plan. However, if the Board decides to take action regarding turf at a later date, funding issues could push back the intended September 2021 start date. “It’s probably best that the decision be made on the 13th,” Roth stated.

“If we do not pass this by June 13, we will miss very important deadlines on the additions” to the schools necessary to address health and safety as well as overcrowding.

2nd VP Anthony Mazzocchi asked Roth to prepare a report before the meeting on the 13th showing what reallocating funds, for instance from capital reserve, would look like. Maini reminded Board members that many community members previously asked for turf, and asked the Board to come prepared to next week’s meeting, reading community emails and directing questions to herself.

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