By Stephanie Purifoy
This time of year the Glen Lake High School football field sits idle, the tall press box empty, the large American flag blowing lonely in the wind. But the late summer and fall months bring a flurry of activity. Football programs at Glen Lake begin in late July and last through the fall — some years clear to November. In 2016 the varsity football team won its way to the state championship game, before losing, 26-14, to Jackson Lumen Christi on Nov. 25. During these months, the field becomes a gathering point for the community, which revels in Friday night gridiron matches under the lights.
But in recent weeks, the otherwise inconspicuous stretch of grass has drawn an unusual amount of attention as the Glen Lake school board discusses whether to install artificial turf on the field. This proposition has caused a mini uproar within the community. Petitions on Facebook both for and against the turf were created, the petition opposed receiving 120 signatures while the petition in support receiving only 66 signatures. This split divided an unusually large crowd of about 50 at a May 22 board meeting with impassioned voices speaking both in favor and against turf.
Glen Lake has several options. Replacing the football field with fresh sod would cost around $400,000 with slightly higher maintenance fees, whereas the average bid for an artificial turf is around $800,000 with lower maintenance costs but a lifespan of only 10-12 years.
“At face value, grass wins no problem but what are you getting?” school board chairperson Fran Seymour asked rhetorically. “You can spend $400,000 for a field you use once a week or $800,000 for a field you can use seven times a week.”
The football teams currently practice on the baseball field in order to preserve their well-worn playing surface. Parents at the May 22 meeting pointed out that Glen Lake installed a new practice field in the summer of 2016, which should alleviate some pressure on the football field.
A particularly hazy area is the safety of an artificial turf field compared to a grass field. Many articles in the media blare warnings about artificial turf, claiming that the crumb rubber beads that act as soil cause cancer if ingested or inhaled. According to Seymour, however, the board has not found any scientific studies that suggest the two are linked, despite extensive research. Some at the board meeting who chose to give a public comment claimed that artificial turf prevents injuries while others said exactly the opposite.
“Once [the natural grass] is fixed, all the scientific research I looked at said that its on par with astro-turf with frequency of injuries but [natural grass] had less severe injures than fake turf,” said Timothy Young, a parent of two students at Glen Lake. “So, you can call it a split but to me that favors grass a little bit.”
Some individuals in the community also wonder if an artificial turf field would get enough use to warrant the cost. Proponents say the turf could be used for much more than football. Physical education classes at Glen Lake go outside almost every day, and an artificial complex could be lined for both soccer and lacrosse in addition to football. At the board meeting Scott Jozwiak of Jozwiak Consulting recommended that Glen Lake highly consider artificial turf if the school plans to host more than 30 events per season.
“The biggest reservations people have are the cost and the utilization,” said Seymour.
Favoring athletics over academics?
Many people have expressed surprise because Glen Lake recently completed a remodel of the sports complex and surrounding area, which included installing the practice field, paving a road back to the soccer and softball fields, expanding and paving parking lots around the grounds, and other steps. This $1.6 million upgrade didn’t raise the community’s eyebrows when announced but the cost is now used as evidence that the school’s priorities are skewed towards athletics.
“I do think that such a big boost in the athletic programs just perpetuates the reputation that we are an athletics academy and there’s a lot of kids here who do many good things that are not part of athletics,” said Shannon Fisher, a chemistry teacher at Glen Lake. “I want Glen Lake to be known because we’re a place that puts out a quality human.”
Some parents share Fisher’s concerns. “There are a lot of things the school could do to increase the experience for all of the students whether that’s education or the arts or other sports,” said Young, whose son plans to try out the football team this fall. “It’s certainly fair to take a deeper look at the balance between academic expenditures, which benefit every student, and those allocated towards sports. Is this large an expenditure for such a small portion of our overall sports infrastructure really going to help our students soar and prepare them for the future?”
“On the academic side the considerable saving by choosing grass is certainly enough to endow a fund to subsidize our graduates first year of college or vocational school.”
When faced with this criticism, the school board points to projects that haven’t centered around athletics, such as a new media center—which cost about $2 million — bleacher upgrades in the school’s auditoria — a combination of a cafeteria and auditorium — and improvements in the school’s technology.
“A lot of times we aren’t aware as a board that something might be needed,” said Seymour, “we hardly ever deny a request for money if it’s reasonable and makes sense.”
Outspending the competition
By comparison, Glen Lake spends much more on athletics than other area schools. Leland Public School’s overall budget for athletics in the 2016-17 school year is $58,316 while Glen Lake’s athletic budget for the same year is a whopping $668,150 — over 10 times the amount of its neighbor to the north. Suttons Bay Public School has upgraded some of its athletic facilities over the past couple years but none of those individual projects exceeded $200,000 in comparison with Glen Lake’s $1.6 million remodel in summer 2016.
However, it’s also true that Glen Lake spends more money, in general, than Leland and Suttons Bay, combined. Glen Lake receives an infusion of $3,299,761 from an Impact Aid Grant — federal money tied to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which sits largely within the school district, and is not subject to property taxes. That grant gives the school much more room to pursue big projects. But this money is reauthorized annually by the federal government, and may not survive the current administration’s budget proposal to Congress.
With the community split in two, many eagerly await June 12, the date of the next Glen Lake board meeting where the board is expected to vote on an artificial turf decision.
“We try to make decisions that we know will last for 20-30 years,” said Seymour. “We aren’t trying to do just kick the can down the road to the next generation or the generation after that. If we are going to do it we have to do it right.”