Football

Turf Wars: Move to all-grass fields at Cupertino, Sunnyvale high schools dismissed by district

A push to replace a dozen synthetic high school fields with real grass from those concerned about the environmental hazards associated with artificial turf was shot down amid concerns the switch would disrupt student activities.

The Fremont Union High School District board of trustees voted early Wednesday morning to update the turf at Fremont, Homestead, Lynbrook, Monta Vista and Cupertino high schools, part of the district’s goal to repair and replace old turf fields over the next few years. The district serves students in Cupertino, Sunnyvale and San Jose.

“We have plans now, that is to replace the synthetic turf,” Superintendent Graham Clark said. “We don’t have plans to replace it with natural grass.”

The district used bond funding to replace 12 of its 15 grass fields between 2009 and 2013 in an effort to conserve water and improve athletic facilities. The remaining three fields were converted in 2018. The turf has a life expectancy of eight to 10 years, leading local heath and environment enthusiasts and board members to debate the change now.

“I think considering all the negative impacts, there really is no good benefits for keeping artificial turf,” said Lynbrook High School junior Daphne Zhu. “The fact that it’s plastic and not degradable or recyclable, it’s not better for athletes’ health and for the environment.”

Cupertino High School junior Clarabelle Wang supports grass as a matter of personal preference. Wang, who runs track and field, said warming up on an artificial field can be uncomfortable, especially during hot days when the turf absorbs heat. The small bits of turf that get into her shoes doesn’t make exercising an enjoyable experience, either.

“I feel like it has been more of a burden to use artificial turf, at least at my school,” Wang said. “There are lot of little rock pieces everywhere and it would get into everyone’s shoes and stuff like that.”

Making the switch to real grass would delay replacements for the already worn-out turf by a year, according to district staff. Trustee members believe students who regularly use fields for after-school activities can’t afford to wait that long.

“The music program and athletics program make our school district much stronger,” trustee Rosa Kim said. “I think it will be really, really challenging if we delay this process and then go back to natural grass.”

Synthetic turf has come under increasing scrutiny as it can can contain hazardous micro-plastics and chemicals like PFAS, known as “forever chemicals.” The latter can leach into food chains, contaminate water supplies and have negative developmental effects on children and others.

In August 2023, the Santa Clara County Medical Association penned a letter about the health concerns of artificial turf to the Los Gatos-Saratoga Unified High School District, where community members were pushing to replace turf fields with grass.

The Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club also wrote to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in November about how the plastic turf is difficult to break down and properly dispose. The turf fades and cracks over time, the letter states, which can cause small bits of plastic to enter waterways.

The school district conducted a study session in September for staff to compare the two options. Lower costs and maintenance associated with synthetic fields provide an incentive for the district to adopt them, according to a session presentation. The cost for replacing the 12 fields with turf is estimated to be $23 million, while the cost for changing all 15 fields to natural turf would cost approximately $35 to $45 million. The district also estimates that synthetic turf makes the fields useable for an estimated 5,040 hours per year versus 2,550 for natural grass.

Still, the benefits don’t persuade Linda Hutchins-Knowles, co-founder of Mothers Out Front Silicon Valley, to support turf. Established in 2016, the local chapter of the nationwide climate justice organization is helping parents and students advocate for grass fields. They sent a letter to the school trustees, which was supported and signed by 12 other local organizations and 96 community members, urging them to reject any future artificial turf plans.

Hutchins-Knowles thinks there are more benefits to having natural grass than artificial turf, even if district studies say otherwise. Disappointed with Wednesday’s decision, she believes trustees should do more research into natural turf alternatives and make children’s safety a priority.

“Before making a decision about future field replacement, we ask the trustees and staff to thoroughly research state-of-the art natural turf alternatives,” she said. “The health of our students and environment demand no less.”

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