DeMatha Catholic High School's lacrosse team takes the artificial turf at Heurich Community Park in Hyattsville. Coaches at Prince George’s public schools have long wanted artificial turf at their facilities. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

The Buffalo Wild Wings Grill and Bar in Bowie on Sunday seemed like a good place to ask Prince George’s residents their opinion of a proposed bill in the Maryland House of Delegates that would mandate artificial turf fields for all high schools in the county.

The bill, introduced by Del. Jay Walker (D-Prince George’s) and Sen. Douglass J.J. Peters (D-Prince George’s), would require all of the county’s public high schools to install artificial turf by the end of 2018

The General Assembly will take up the bill when the legislative session opens Wednesday. If it passes, coaches and their players will be happy, but some county residents will be at their wits end.

“That shouldn’t be a priority for Prince George’s schools right now,” said Keshia Blackson, a 1989 Friendly High School graduate, answering questions as she waited for the Redskins game to start. “They’re talking about making it a law? What? They got their priorities jacked up.

“They have crowded classrooms,” continued Blackson. “Applegrove Elementary has trailers! I think they could spend their money on teachers and books. . . . Again, sports gets the money.”

Blackson’s friend, Jerri Jones, chimed in. “They want to make it a law to have turf? How about making it a law that every student gets a chair and a desk.”

Coaches at Prince George’s public high schools have been calling for artificial turf for years. When students at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville began playing on new artificial turf in March 2011, a coach at one of the county’s public schools told The Washington Post that the time had come for public schools to get turf fields as well.

County Councilman Derrick L. Davis (D-Dist. 6) understands the concerns and says the council agreed with the county’s education board last month to conduct an overall “performance audit” of the school system’s needs. He supports the turf bill because school fields are in severe disrepair, which puts players at risk of injuries, he said, but he knows student safety, transportation and student-to-teacher ratio are other areas that need improvement.

“We are cognizant of all the needs. Our performance audit will give us clear direction on how to fund these,” Davis said in an interview Tuesday. “We have to attend to all of our situations in concert with the board of education. We’re looking at how we maximize our dollars to leverage the best results we can across the board — in the classrooms and out of the classrooms. We have to look at it all and make sure that we prioritize. We will utilize our resources to get the maximum benefits for all our schools.”

This turf bill was the hot topic on a county listserv last week, where residents there were decidedly against mandating turf for many reasons. “I don’t, for the life of me, understand why the legislature needs to get down into this level of management to begin with. Let the school board and the administrators do their jobs,” Stan Fetter wrote.

Sherry Strother raised another question: “These fields harbor disease, germs, and emit chemicals when super heated. If the natural fields aren’t being taken care who's to say these fields will be properly managed as they should be?”

Listserv members raised safety and environmental questions similar to questions raised by parents in Montgomery County, when school officials began acquiring artificial turf for high schools there.

Davis said state, county and school officials are working together. “This is just the beginning. Once we go through the audit, we will have and implement a plan. Hopefully, at the end of the road, all the priorities will be addressed, and the only way we can do this is to make sure we’re working in lock-step with our county executive, board of education, and state legislature, which allocates 60 percent of the budget.”    

At the sports bar, I expected to find mostly support for the bill. But, only two of the eight individuals I interviewed favored the bill. Carl Butler, a county resident, noted that many D.C. high schools have artificial turf fields, and he thinks the bill is a good idea because artificial turf costs less to maintain.

But Turner Mebane, a Beltsville resident who once enjoyed playing on artificial turf, opposes the artificial turf bill based on his experiences as a high school and college football player. “It’s good because it gives you traction, but it also tears your knees up because it doesn’t give,” said Mebane, who played for the Virginia Military Institute. 

In 2011, The Post reported that a single artificial turf field costs about $1 million.

Bill sponsors Walker and Peters told The Gazette that Prince George’s schools deserve the same up-to-date facilities as other schools in the region. They also said artificial turf will save money on maintenance in the long run.

But million-dollar football fields for some schools while others have trailers outside and classes overcrowded with more than 40 students per teacher inside seems like poor prioritizing to me. According to Prince George’s Schools spokesman Briant Coleman, there are about 400 temporary buildings in use on school campuses to accommodate students.

By anyone’s assessment, Prince George’s students need better academic preparation and better protection at school and on their way to and from school.

I would like to see the football fields installed as a shining star on the outside after the necessary work needed on the inside is done. Prioritizing any other way reminds me of the time when too many of us gave our children $100 tennis shoes and Happy Meals from McDonald’s when they needed — and deserved — so much more.

Prince George’s students deserve the best, yes, and here is a teachable moment to show them that improvement begins from the inside out.

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