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District 196 considering plan to add artificial turf fields at high schools

The District 196 School Board gave the administration approval to take the next steps in developing plans to add artificial turf fields at each of the district’s four high schools over the next two years. 

The desire for artificial turf fields at District 196 high schools has been a topic of discussion among parents, coaches and administrators for many years. But up until a special meeting Dec. 2, a proposal to add artificial turf fields had not been brought to the School Board.

Director of Finance and Operations Mark Stotts said the proposal is coming forward now because of growing concerns about safety and playability issues with sod fields. The situation reached a breaking point this fall, when a wet season and failed drainage tile system caused Rosemount High School to shut down its stadium field (pictured). Athletics Director Mike Manning told the board that in the last two years he has moved 20 varsity events to other locations because Rosemount’s stadium field was unplayable. Last year, the school’s annual marching band festival had to be rescheduled to the artificial turf field at Farmington High School, and this year the final home football game was played at Lakeville North High School. Manning said the field is not likely to be available for boys’ and girls’ lacrosse teams in the spring.

“It has changed from being an extra to an expectation,” Superintendent Mary M. Kreger said about artificial turf fields. District 196 high schools are a part of a shrinking minority of metro-area high schools (24 of 76) that do not have artificial turf fields. Apple Valley, Eagan, Eastview and Rosemount are the only member high schools in the South Suburban Conference and Region 3AA that do not have artificial turf fields. 

The administration presented the board with a proposal to add two artificial turf fields (one stadium and one practice) at each of the four high schools, for a total of eight fields. The estimated cost is $16-18 million total, including site work, eight fields, track replacement and lighting for the practice fields. Stotts said the project can be financed with lease levy authority for instructional space, using certificates of participation or lease purchase financing, over a term of approximately 10 years. He said the tax impact on this amount would be about $1 per month on the average-value home in the district.

To address the situation at Rosemount in time for the start of school next fall, Stotts said the process would need to move forward now. The plan is to add fields at Rosemount and Eagan first, with completion of the stadium fields in time for the start of school next fall, then Apple Valley and Eastview together in 2021 to take advantage of efficiencies in working on both Apple Valley schools at the same time.  

“This is for our classes, this is for our teams, this is for our community,” said Board Chair Jackie Magnuson, one of five board members at the Dec. 2 meeting who agreed to move forward with planning and design. Board Member Sachin Isaacs said he is in complete support of moving forward, but wants to be sensitive to the timing of the proposal coming in the wake of the levy referendum election in November. Stotts assured the board that no operating levy funds would be used for this project.

“I can see how all three of the As (academics, arts and athletics) will benefit from these fields,” Rosemount High Principal Pete Roback said. 

In addition to providing a more consistent and reliable surface for high school athletic teams and marching bands, artificial turf fields would provide additional teaching stations for the schools’ physical education classes and would be valuable new resources for athletic associations that offer programs for youth in the communities District 196 serves. 

“We’ve gone from want to need,” said Eastview High School Athletics Director Matt Percival, referring to conversations about artificial turf over the last 20 years. He said sod fields have not held up well to increased demand for usage by more sports and activities, and the year-round nature of these activities. Eastview limits usage of the stadium field and adjacent lower-level field to about 70 events per year in order to protect the sod as much as possible. If they were artificial turf fields, Percival said that number would increase to more than 1,200 event/game opportunities in the fall and spring each year, not including summer. 

The proposal will be presented for official School Board action at the Dec. 9 regular meeting, starting at 6 p.m. at Dakota Ridge School in Apple Valley. If approved, the administration would apply for lease levy authority from the Minnesota Department of Education, the district’s architect, Wold Architects and Engineers, would complete design for the first two projects, and bids for construction of those fields would be awarded in March.