No Turf For School Playing Fields

School board changes mind, will spend bond money on buildings, not on fields

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With a new high school 14 years out instead of the more immediate timeline earlier anticipated, the Payson Unified School District voted Monday night to stretch its remaining $3.3 million in bond dollars for building repairs and not install turf on three high school sports fields.

The cost of installing turf on the baseball, softball and football fields, originally estimated at $1.6 million, would have ended up costing $2.1 million.

Although school board member Barbara Underwood said turf was on the list of projects promised by the bond committee, which she sat on, she added that other community leaders on the committee supported reneging on the sports field upgrade because of economic necessity.

“I don’t want to voters to think we’ve gone against their wishes,” Underwood said.

School board member Matt Van Camp perhaps encapsulated the board’s view — “It’d be a waste of taxpayers’ money to put in fake grass.”

The district initially wanted to install turf because it offered a better playing surface and would have saved money on watering bills. However, the original bond plan was based on the premise that spending this $33.8 million in good faith would smooth the way to float another bond for a new high school.

A simple, but adequate high school would cost $40 million, said Superintendent Casey O’Brien.

The 2006 bond allotted $3.4 million for improvements at the high school. Of that money, roughly half was budgeted for the fields. Other completed projects at the high school included $240,000 for roof repairs, and $546,000 worth of energy upgrades, which were partially paid for through grants.

O’Brien said the district will not reach bonding capacity for a new high school until 2023. The amount of debt a district can carry is based on its assessed property valuation.

“We can’t go for a new high school,” O’Brien said, and so the district should instead spend money to make the school last for the next 14 years, at least.

Several months ago, the district’s Director of Maintenance and Transportation Todd Poer created a 10-year master facilities plan, cataloging each building and its necessary upkeep on things like heating and cooling units.

The leftover bond money could be spent on projects like those, or on things like the new buses that the district is projected to need over the next three years. The bond money can also be used for these purchases. The district must spend remaining bond money by September 2011.

Repairs could technically be postponed, O’Brien said. However, if a heating and cooling unit broke, he’d be forced to say, “Board, we have no money.”

The board’s decision to refrain from installing fake grass followed a $350,000 cut to this year’s budget and a still unknown hit to next year’s budget. Also, the district used to receive roughly $250,000 annually from the state’s school facility board. However, that money was among the first budget casualties, and O’Brien said he didn’t know when, or if, that funding source would ever return.

Although the district originally wanted to save money on water bills by installing the turf, O’Brien calculated that by saving $7,000 annually on the district’s $8,000 water bill for the existing fields — turf must still be watered occasionally — it would take 300 years to recoup the investment.

“It’s probably not the best investment in terms of saving money,” he said.

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