IRSD ready to pursue Bermuda grass on fields

Date Published: 
Nov. 10, 2017

Special to the Coastal Point • Bruce Walls: Indian River is considering making the switch to Bermuda grass like this at Seaford High School.Special to the Coastal Point • Bruce Walls: Indian River is considering making the switch to Bermuda grass like this at Seaford High School.After tossing the idea around for years, the Indian River School District’s Board of Education unanimously voted this week to begin pursuing Bermuda grass for the football and field hockey stadiums at both high schools.

“I think the public is going to appreciate what we’re doing with these four fields,” said Joe Booth, supervisor of Buildings & Grounds. “I work for the district, but I also am a district resident. … I think this is a good thing moving forward, trying to improve these fields for our students.”

The optimum option would be artificial turf, he said, but Bermuda grass is a great runner-up.

“It’s mainly because of the recovery, and it gives you a little bit of the cushion. It’s mowed short so you don’t have a problem with cleats getting caught,” he said. Also, “It’s flat. It’s consistent all the way through.”

In comparison, an athlete could plant her cleat in regular grass, creating a rut that a field hockey ball could jump up and, “It can knock teeth out. … I’ve seen that ball travel pretty fast,” Booth said.

Bermuda grass is tolerant to salt, drought, insects and disease, which IRSD fields have suffered at various times.

“It grows very quick. … That’s why it repairs quickly,” he said. “But it has to be maintained.”

The grass can sometimes require mowing several times a week to keep a short, springy surface.

Supervisors also stake their reputation on Bermuda grass because of public perception: “The first year, the Bermuda does not look too good,” Booth said.

Like a toddler growing hair or a teenager trying for a beard, Bermuda grass might come in patchy for two years before filling in fast and lush.

IR High School’s football field is also home to its marching band, two lacrosse teams, track-and-field, graduation and daily gym classes. The soccer teams still play in the old IRHS stadium across the street but could potentially move to a new Bermuda grass field, if schedules permitted.

The IRHS field hockey pitch only hosts that one sport.

Quality fields are also considered a courtesy to the visiting teams who play at IRSD.

“I personally think they should be in the best shape they can be,” said Booth “I go to away games, I see these other fields, and Indian River district’s fields are lagging. There comes a time when you have to equal the people that you’re inviting.”

Although the board discussed potential costs (four fields will cost tens of thousands of dollars), the board did not officially set a budget or pick a contractor.

However, the IRSD will soon have a balance of around $2.4 million in State-supplied minor capital improvement funds, which can be used for school grounds and athletic facilities.

They will need a plan for mowing, which must be done every other day with a special mower. Some board members said they would prefer to hire a field maintenance company, rather than invest in the pricey specialized mower and custodial manpower.

And there was concern about funding such specialized grass and maintenance.

“I’m not against it,” said Board Member Leolga Wright, “but I do have a concern” about all the other maintenance projects that haven’t been addressed, such as lighting, technology, HVAC, phone systems and more. Superintendent Mark Steele responded that the upcoming energy audit will help the IRSD address some those other minor capital projects.

For years, Board Member Rodney Layfield touted the benefits of Bermuda grass, but no one bit until recently. In October, a group of parents and coaches met with the Buildings & Grounds Committee, proposing to privately fund fields at IRHS. But the board ultimately felt that athletic fields are the district’s responsibility and should be addressed equally.

“I have reservations about a parent group raising money when it is the … district’s responsibility to maintain the fields,” said James “Jim” Fritz, who noted the potential “gray area” of having parents fund a field when their children play on the teams.

Opinions may have been swayed by a DIAA letter that Board President Charles Bireley read to board members in October. Although IRHS played the rest of their winning season on a regular grass field, the DIAA tournament committee wrote that, “It was determined that the field is not suitable for tournament play. … The most significant factor is safety.” That means IRHS lost any chance at a home-field advantage.

Although sports have been played on grass forever, the DIAA feels that everyone else has upgraded to better playing fields, and IRSD hasn’t. Booth diplomatically said that one can’t fault the DIAA for making sure players have the safest ground possible.

“You don’t like hearing it. It hurts your pride a little bit,” Booth said. “You try to maintain your fields with the best you’re given.”

Turf discussions will continue at future IRSD committee meetings, for Finance and Buildings & Grounds.