Walt Whitman High School is on track to get an artificial turf field, to the relief of some sports parents and the chagrin of some safety advocates.
The Montgomery County school board on Tuesday night approved a $1.344 million contract to install the field at the Bethesda high school over the summer. The decision capitalizes on an agreement with the nonprofit Montgomery Soccer Inc., which has agreed to cover $1.2 million of the project’s cost, and clears the way for Kensington’s Albert Einstein High and Rockville’s Julius West Middle, two schools that are next in line to get synthetic fields.
Andrew Hosker, a Whitman parent, said a majority of the school’s families support installing an artificial turf field and asked board members not to be swayed by the opposition.
“Respectfully, it is beyond time for common sense to prevail for the greater good,” said Hosker, who co-chairs the turf committee for Whitman’s boosters club. “Turf continues to be installed nationwide, has been fully adopted by neighboring counties and states and is expanding in this county’s private facilities and schools.”
However, some residents are protesting that there’s not enough evidence that the mineral infill for Whitman’s new field is safe.
Susan Loftus, a physical education teacher at Burning Tree Elementary School in Bethesda, said she couldn’t find peer-reviewed research articles on the infill material. At one point in her testimony, she pulled a tennis shoe out of a bag and began banging it on the table, releasing clouds of white powder.
“What is this? What is this dust?” she said. “I implore you not to experiment on children.”
School board member Jill Ortman-Fouse, the lone vote against installing artificial turf at Whitman, said she wasn’t convinced the infill was safe, either.
“When I see that powder, it makes me concerned about what’s going into our children’s’ bodies,” she said.
Infill is made up of loose particles that rest, like dirt, between the turf fibers and provide shock absorption and carpet durability. The use of crumb rubber as an infill has generated widespread concern about exposing children to dangerous chemicals and carcinogens, although limited studies so far have shown no elevated health risk from playing on the surfaces.
In the wake of those concerns, the County Council several years ago passed a resolution supporting the use of plant-based materials for infill.
Andrew Zuckerman, the school system’s chief operating officer, said the Council had sent Montgomery County Public Schools a letter stating that the proposal for the Whitman field followed the spirit of the resolution.
The Whitman field will be filled with a material called “clinoptilolite zeolite,” a mineral that comes from a rock found in Nevada, Zuckerman wrote in a letter to the school community.
“This is the same natural infill mix in use at the three newly installed artificial turf playing fields at the Maryland (SoccerPlex) in Montgomery County, as well as many other fields around the country,” Zuckerman wrote, adding that the substance complies with a number of safety standards.
He said opponents of artificial turf are misinforming the parents that the infill will contain a different substance, a carcinogen called erionite zeolite.
“Simply put, the infill mix we intend to use is not erionite, and any suggestion otherwise is factually inaccurate,” he wrote.
Montgomery Soccer Inc., which runs youth soccer leagues in the county, in 2016 agreed to pay up to $5.2 million for new artificial fields at Whitman, Einstein and Julius West. In exchange, MSI would have the right to use the fields.
The Whitman field contract, awarded to a Davidsonville company called Sunny Acres Landscaping, was first up for consideration before the school board, with the Einstein project expected to come to a vote May 8.
Einstein parents Tuesday night spoke about the ragged condition of their school’s natural grass field and asked board members to move ahead with the project at Whitman so they can get artificial turf, too.
“I don’t think there’s any dispute that the Einstein fields are atrocious. There are exposed grates. There is hardly any grass. It is rock-hard. It is a danger anytime a student athlete steps on there,” said Melissa Polito of Silver Spring, secretary of the school’s booster club and parent of two Titan athletes.
School board member Pat O’Neill pointed to equity issues related to the discussion, since some parent communities can better afford the upkeep of grass fields than others. Ortman-Fouse agreed that disparities exist, but said there are other ways to address them than by abandoning natural grass turf. She questioned MCPS staff about the comparative costs of artificial and grass fields and said she has been unable to get those numbers in the past.
Kathleen Michels, a parent from the Safe Healthy Playing Fields Coalition, said the synthetic fields also produce a significant amount of waste. She noted that the playing surface at the Montgomery Blair High School’s synthetic turf field had to be replaced last year because it had become heavily worn. The parks system, which maintains the Blair field, reported that it was still under warranty at the time.
Synthetic fields are “basically like black holes sucking in funds continually,” Michels said.
Artificial turf fields are at seven public schools in Montgomery County: Blair, Richard Montgomery High, Walter Johnson High, Gaithersburg High, Paint Branch High, Thomas S. Wootton High and Somerset Elementary. MCPS owns all of the fields except the one at Blair.
The project to install Whitman’s field should begin in coming weeks and wrap up by the start of the fall athletic season, an MCPS spokeswoman said.