Beaufort Co. school board members question policy of evicting football teams from fields

The grass isn’t always greener — or safer — when high schools install artificial turf

High school football artificial turf fields around Boise, Idaho, bring safety concerns because of inconsistent oversight of industry safety and testing standards. Buzz Splittgerber, owner of Buzz Turf Synthetic Turf Testing talks about the process
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High school football artificial turf fields around Boise, Idaho, bring safety concerns because of inconsistent oversight of industry safety and testing standards. Buzz Splittgerber, owner of Buzz Turf Synthetic Turf Testing talks about the process

A discussion of school facility rentals at Wednesday’s Beaufort County School District operations committee was relatively tame — until the committee members got to talking about football fields.

Board of Education members and youth football leagues are arguing for looser restrictions on who gets to use school fields for practices and games. But district officials argue that allowing constant field use could endanger players.

In the 2018-19 school year, local sports teams brought in $36,599 of the $220,404 the district made from groups using school properties, hosting 572 events at schools. They were the third-biggest earner in facilities use, behind worship services and concerts.

As it stands, school principals have the final say in whether outside groups, such as Little Leagues and churches, can use their facilities. But operations committee members John Dowling and William Smith want those decisions to be more centralized.

“We have a regulation that says that virtually any group can rent,” Dowling said. “And if they’re willing to pay the fee and sign the contract and abide by every condition that we give, no one in the school should have the discretion to say no. Because it opens the door to subjectivity by the principal.”

The issue with this, district chief operations officer Robert Oetting said, is that the fields can become unusable.

“Bluffton High is a prime example where overuse of the field, we were constantly combating it,” Oetting said. “And I can tell you that to redo the field is about $150,000. So that $200 use fee is never going to pay for that.”

For nonprofit organizations, such as the four Beaufort County members of the Lowcountry Youth Football League, it costs $100 to rent the football stadium for up to five hours, and an additional $100 for every hour beyond that.

Larry Hickey, the football commissioner of the league’s Bluffton Bulldogs teams, estimated that it cost him about $2,000 per season to rent the facilities at Bluffton High School. The teams use school fields — rarely the official stadium or practice fields, he said, but other areas — three to four times a week for practice.

The schools Hickey has rented have changed over the years, however. Within the past four years, the Bluffton Bulldogs have called May River High School, River Ridge Academy and Bluffton High School their home turf.

Hickey said that he’s thankful for May River’s generosity — the school doesn’t charge the program for facility use, as the league provides scholarships for players that equal the rental amount — but the school is too far out of the way for many of his parents.

His goal is to get back to Bluffton High School, where the Bulldogs played before principal Denise Garison’s arrival in 2016.

“When a principal kicks us out of a field, I wonder why,” Hickey said. “Because we’re one of the only organizations giving money back to the players and the school community.”

Garison said that the decision was made with safety in mind. Bluffton High School no longer rents out its facilities, and the football team is conducting its full practices in a field behind the football stadium to avoid further damage to the stadium grass.

“When I got hired, the athletic director came to me worried about safety,” she said. “Little holes would get pounded into the field, and it’s unsafe for the players.”

While the youth teams that use the fields are required to have insurance in case of player injuries, none of the three football commissioners interviewed believed that their insurance covered wear and tear to facilities.

“There’s other schools out there saying no as well,” Bluffton High School athletic director Cody Slaughter said. “We kind of resist letting anyone use those fields. We give everybody the same answer.”

Oetting said that school fields suffer from heavy use in the spring and have a short summer-recovery period in the summer before football season starts. In winter, when the fields aren’t used, the grass is dormant and can’t regrow.

“Now if we go to turf fields, which is in the referendum, we can use them all day long,” he said. “There is some maintenance, but grass fields do have a limited use, and several of our facilities in the past have been way overused.”

Oetting said that if the $345 million November school bond referendum, which contains funding for athletic renovations across the district, succeeds, all district fields should be replaced with artificial turf by 2024. Garison said she would have “absolutely no problem” with renting out artificial fields.

But in the meantime, Hickey will see what he can do to get the Bulldogs back home.

“My hopes are to be able to start using the field without jumping through hoops again,” Hickey said. “I’m literally begging Bluffton High, and I’m only two weeks away from my first practice.”

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Rachel Jones covers education for the Island Packet and the Beaufort Gazette. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has worked for the Daily Tar Heel and Charlotte Observer. Rachel grew up in Ayden, NC, surrounded by teachers.