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Prince George’s delegates approve artificial-turf fields at county high schools

The Prince George’s County House Delegation on Friday approved a state bill that would require the installation of artificial turf fields at all county high schools, after County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) rescinded his opposition to the measure.

The delegates voted 19-3 to approve the bill even though the county Board of Education said this week that it was against the measure.

Dels. Tawanna Gaines, Barbara Frush and Josephine Pena-Melnyk, all Democrats, voted against the bill.

Del. Jay Walker (D-Prince George’s), the bill’s sponsor, told his colleagues on Friday that the bill is about safety and saving money.

He read quotes from area high school coaches who complained of injuries sustained by athletes because of the poor conditions of their fields. He also said it would cost about $700,000 to install synthetic fields at each of the county’s 21 high schools and about $4,000 a year to maintain each one, noting that it costs about $30,000 a year to maintain the grass fields at each school.

But delegates who opposed the measure raised questions about where the money would come from to pay for the installation. They were also concerned that the bill mandated the fields.

Walker’s original bill said county funds could be used to pay for the fields. He amended the bill Friday, allowing state school construction funds and money from the Open Space program, which pays for parks and recreation, to be used pay for the installation.

“Every dollar that is diverted for turf fields from the Board’s Capital Improvement Program deprives Prince George’s County school children from having a leaky roof fixed, a boiler repaired, or a grease trap replaced,” the school board wrote in a letter to the delegates.

The board said that it has a “billion dollar backlog” in capital improvement projects and that those projects should not have to compete with artificial fields.

But a Baker spokesman said the county executive had rescinded his opposition after it was ensured that no county funds would be used to pay for the fields.

“To our knowledge, no other county has mandated the installation of turf fields so it was important for the County Executive in these tough fiscal times to ensure that, in the event of the bill’s passage, that there was a dedicated funding source for the county to pay for the fields other than county general funds,” said Scott Peterson, a spokesman, in an e-mail.

In addition to hearing from the school board, delegates received a letter from 13 environmental and civic groups opposing the bill, including the Prince George’s County Sierra Club and Safe Healthy Playing Fields Coalition. The Prince George’s County Planning Board took no position on the bill, saying the amendments “have sparked a philosophical debate among the County leadership that deserves to be settled before it is appropriate for the Planning Board to weigh in.”

In other action, the delegation voted to approve a piece of legislation that would create a task force to review the operations of the school board.

Four delegates did not vote on the measure. Del. Anne Healey (D-Prince George’s) walked out of the room as her name was being called for the vote.

The school board has opposed that bill, as well, saying it needs to focus on its search for a permanent school superintendent. Former school chief William R. Hite left in September for a job in Philadelphia.

Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith (D-Prince George’s), who sponsored the bill, said the legislation is “not coming out of criticism of the school board.” She said the task force will look at best practices, examining its strengths and weaknesses.

Ovetta Wiggins covers Maryland state politics in Annapolis.



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