Some Richland County parents worried for their high school athletes’ safety are frustrated that school district officials did not respond sooner to concerns about a faulty sports field.
They worry, too, that students at other schools could be at risk and that a pricey investment is not being maintained and protected. But school district officials say the problems are limited to one school’s field and are being addressed.
A year ago, A.C. Flora High School soccer and lacrosse teams began playing on a new artificial turf field on their Forest Acres campus. It’s one of six new turf fields that have been installed at Richland 1 high schools and stadiums in the past two years. A seventh is under construction at Bolden Stadium, and one more is planned at Dreher High School.
Not long after play began on the $728,000 Flora field last spring, athletes and parents began to notice problems with the drainage, cushioning and lay of the field, some parents say.
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A year later, just as the soccer and lacrosse teams are about to begin their spring playing seasons, Richland 1 school district officials have suddenly shut down the A.C. Flora field altogether to assess its condition. Pre-season soccer games were played there Monday before the district decided to shut down the field.
The field is closed “until the vendor places the appropriate level of infill on the field,” Richland 1 spokeswoman Karen York said.
A company called FirstForm Inc. was contracted to install all eight turf fields in the district. York said the company, not the school district, was responsible for field maintenance.
“The district was aware of a drainage issue on the field. In response, the district had the contractor to make the appropriate repair for the drainage system. After the repair was completed, the vendor was to install additional infill for the turf system,” York said in an email to The State. “The district is working with its consultants and attorney to identify an appropriate solution with the vendor.”
The State newspaper has reached out to FirstForm Inc.
Parents are frustrated that the district has not responded to their concerns before now.
“It’s my understanding that there were numerous concerns voiced over the past year,” Ashley Thomas, a Flora soccer parent, told Richland 1 school board members Tuesday night. “What steps have been taken before this point where the field has to be closed at the onset of the season? ... To get to this point without appropriate action being taken prior to this would just be inexcusable to me in terms of not prioritizing the safety of our students and maintaining a facility that was just built.”
Thomas was one of several Flora parents and students who shared their disappointment with district officials and asked them to quickly resolve problems with the field at Tuesday’s school board meeting.
“The turf was supposed to last 10 years. It’s not even a year and a half old, and now we can’t use it,” said Flynn Bowie, the father of a Flora football and lacrosse player. “This is not an issue that’s just going to affect A.C. Flora. This is going to happen at all those schools if they’re not maintained properly.”
School board member Beatrice King echoed the parents’ concerns. But when she asked the district’s facility services director, Raymond Perkins, whether other athletic fields in the district could have problems — and whether the two remaining projects could be put on hold — the school district’s attorney quickly clamped down the conversation.
“There are some things that don’t need to be asked tonight until we hear from those hired to provide us information,” attorney Susan Williams said, speaking up at the behest of board chairman Jamie Devine. “If we wind up addressing this as a legal matter, we don’t need to express all of that in an open session until we are clear on the steps.”
The A.C. Flora field is the only one experiencing problems, York later told The State.
Richland 1 is in the midst of a roughly $40 million program to improve athletic facilities at high schools across the district, which includes the A.C. Flora turf field. Others include a new $10 million stadium that opened at Keenan High last fall, significant upgrades to the Memorial, Bolden and Lower Richland stadiums, and on-campus multi-sport fields and amenities at Columbia, Dreher and Eau Claire.
Dreher High’s turf field — and new tennis courts — have been delayed after a drawn-out debate with neighbors, who opposed the new sports facilities at the school. That controversy has since been resolved, and the plans were approved by city leaders last fall.