BRUNSWICK COUNTY –– Brunswick County’s Board of Education got in a slight tiff over turf this week, with Chairman Ed Lemon seemingly nostalgic for his old board.
The all-Republican board has a freshman majority: Robin Moffitt was appointed in November 2020 to fill Charlie Miller’s vacancy after he picked up the House District 19 seat; Steven Barger unseated longtime board member Ellen Milligan last year; David Robinson narrowly beat out three-term member Catherine Cooke.
Lemon and Gerald Benton are the last remaining members of the old guard. Though the one moment was tense, it’s small potatoes compared to the trainwreck of a meeting New Hanover County Schools recently held across the river.
South Brunswick High School’s (SBHS) baseball field is often inundated with stormwater, leading to postponed games and scheduling problems for both home and traveling teams.
Completely flat with next-to-no drainage, the district’s operations team pitched a relatively inexpensive fix: regrade the field with a 1% slope and install a subsurface drainage system to keep the grass dry.
Bids came in lower than expected last month, with the lowest price offered by Carmichael Construction at $314,000.
Lemon, the board’s longest-serving member first elected in 2016, has lobbied for an astroturf field instead. The upgrade would cost anywhere from $1 million to $1.5 million, according to rough figures shared by operations director Sue Rutledge.
In February 2019, the board approved a $2.29 million contract to install artificial grass in the three high schools’ football fields.
At Tuesday’s regular board meeting, Rutledge presented the board with the Carmichael contract for approval. The week prior the board had discussed the drainage fix contract, with Lemon vying for astroturf instead. At that meeting, Lemon may have been under the impression he had a 3-2 majority in favor of the upgrade, with Benton and Barger in opposition, according to Barger. No votes were taken at that meeting. Tuesday, immediate support for astroturf seemed to have waned.
Lemon cited a letter from the principal of South Brunswick High School, Michael Hodges.
Hodges’ June 30 email states he didn’t want his brief comments at a recent walkthrough on the field to be perceived as indifferent and listed off all the ways astroturf would enhance the program: It would eliminate irrigation and lawn care costs, provide an alternative practice space when other fields get wet, and more. Turfing the football stadium has had an “immeasurable” positive benefit on the community, Hodges wrote in the email addressed to board members.
“I’ll be the first to admit: I have urged the board to consider turf as the exemplary way to fix this field,” Lemon said at the meeting. “Obviously, there’s no support for that. I think we’ve missed a grand opportunity.”
Lemon’s ambitious hopes to upgrade athletic facilities reached beyond baseball, too.
“North Brunswick High School and West Brunswick High School has been in existence 50 years,” he said. “As of today, neither one of them can play a home tennis match because of the lack of facilities we have in this county.”
Barger said considering an expensive upgrade to the baseball field was fiscally irresponsible when roofs needed to be replaced and student performance requires improvement.
“We’ve got to remember, folks, we’re on the board of education, not the board of athletics and we’ve got to improve the education of our students in this county,” he said.
Barger then asked Rutledge to approximate the cost of astroturf, as the board had been given a range of estimates.
“So it’s still a million-dollar difference, essentially, from turf to grass?”
“Which was the same difference in the football fields and the work we were going to do there,” Lemon chimed in. “So we have the same exact scenario that we had when we did the football fields –– except that board had more guts than this board and took the steps they needed to take.”
Without pausing, Lemon called a vote, ending the discussion, and the item passed 4-1. His comment spurred a couple audible gasps from the audience and awkward faces among board members; Barger smiled.
‘One male sport’
Asked to expand on his statements, Lemon wrote in an email he had no further comments.
Barger said circumstances for astroturfing one baseball field vs. three football fields are not the same this time around, despite Lemon’s assertion.
Astroturf is a costly solution, he said in an interview. “Even if it was $1.3, that’s still a million dollars more than fixing it the way we were going to,” he said. “And a million dollars when we have leaking roofs that need to be replaced and failing reading, writing and math scores statewide. I’m not going to spend an extra million dollars on a baseball field that serves one male sport when we can put more money into actually educating our kids.”
Two out of the district’s 20 schools are considered low-performing by state standards. Barger said he and Lemon agree on many items, and admits he gets passionate about certain topics. “I’ve been called way worse things than gutless in my life.”
Board member Benton, first elected in 2018, said in an interview the numbers don’t add up. If the district turfs the baseball field, it would have to upgrade all the high schools’ baseball and softball fields, out of fairness, Benton explained. Baseball fields serve about 20 students. Meanwhile, the enhanced football fields serve boys’ and girls’ soccer, lacrosse, boys’ football, girls’ cheerleading, band competitions, and graduations, according to Benton.
“If you do the math on these things, they work out to be 80-something thousand dollars per child, per player, compared to your football fields which service six sports and cost a third of the amount of money to put in,” he said in an interview.
In an email, Robinson clarified he never agreed to install artificial turf at SBHS and his position has been “consistent all long.” He remains open to turfing the field, but would prefer to include the item in a long-range plan instead, searching for outside funding sources.
“It must [be] taken [into] consideration that we have 3 High Schools, and each one of these High Schools deserve the same consideration when it comes to these kind of major field upgrades,” he wrote in an email. “I would treat South Brunswick no different than I would West Brunswick or North Brunswick.”
Though he didn’t care for Lemon’s wording, Robinson said he understands the chairman’s concerns, especially given his tenure serving the district.
“The Board will not agree on everything every time,” he wrote in an email. “If we agree on artificial turf, that’s fine, I will support that as long as we determine an appropriate funding mechanism that will not negatively impact the budget.”
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