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Pending matching funding by the county, the School Board voted last Thursday to transfer $1.5 million from its operating fund to help pay for synthetic turf fields at several area high schools lacking the facilities.

Sixteen high schools currently have turf fields, while eight do not. Turf is seen as a visible demonstration of inequity across the county. Schools without turf fields are all located in Lee, Mount Vernon and Mason districts, areas with higher low-income students.

“These schools have some of our neediest students and it’s important for all of our students to have a healthy lifestyle,” said School Board member Sandy Evans (Mason District), who represents JEB Stuart, Annandale, Thomas Jefferson and Falls Church high schools. None of these schools currently have turf. Falls Church’s facilities are adding turf this fall.

The cost of resurfacing existing square athletic fields with synthetic turf is estimated between $600,000 and $800,000 depending on the location of construction. Community groups and school-based booster clubs have contributed nearly half of the funding for existing turf fields at schools. A majority of additional funds come from park bonds. Other funding includes user fees and development proffers. No FCPS bond funds have been used to pay for synthetic turf.

Shifting $1.5 million represents very little investment, but could have a big impact, said School Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock District).

“The research demonstrated that synthetic turf fields increased playability for our residents by 62 percent, “ she said. “[The $1.5 million] is a stepping forward for addressing the inequity… We have a $12 million need to help fund the turf fields in these final eight schools and based on the analysis, if the Board of Supervisors and our school system can each come forward with approximately $4.5 million over the next three years we will be able to remove the inequity.”

School Board member Tamara Derenak Kaufax (Lee District) said the partnership between individual schools with community support, the county and the school system is a fair and logical solution.

“This is an issue of fairness and one of equity. Certain school populations have not been able to amass the funding through the process that we are currently using,” she said. Derenak- Kaufax represents Edison, Hayfield, West Potomac and Mount Vernon high schools, which do not have turf.

“This is a small amount to set aside to provide equity and to literally put our remaining schools on a level playing field,” she said.

Some School Board members voiced concerns about diverting money from operational funding.

“We are projecting a deficit of $193.3 million. That is huge. We have not been able to refund many of the cuts that we took during the recession. So in many ways, for example our increase in class size, still stands…,” said School Board member Jane Strauss (Dranesville District), adding that she was voting for the funding, but with reservations. The School Board has made increasing teacher pay a priority, which means some $43 million for step increases. This could make finding that funding more difficult.

“The structural deficit that we have is large and it is very serious and I am not exactly sure how we’re going to find a way forward,” Strauss said. “This is really a capital project and I’m not sure taking it out of the operating budget is the best thing,” when it competes with teacher pay and classroom funding.

Earlier this month, School Board members and county officials heard a task force recommendation on funding options for expanding turf. One option includes creating an ability-to-pay model for high schools based on the number of students eligible for the free and reduced meal program, which is used as a gauge of poverty within schools.

Fairfax County currently has 47 turf fields in use and another 20 pending construction, according to a report by the Synthetic Turf Task Force. Most are rectangular fields, but there are three turfed diamonds.

Most of the synthetic turf fields in the county are school-based. The estimated cost of expanding turf to all schools is $12 million for 15 fields ($800,000 each). JEB Stuart would potentially be the only school to add only one turf field due to limited space on its campus.

The county Board of Supervisors is anticipated to vote on the turf issue in September.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com