Youth league to pay for repairs to school fields

Western county group, Education Dept. agree

Howard At Play

March 28, 2004|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Several poorly maintained school baseball fields in western Howard County are about to get unusual, possibly precedent-setting face-lifts in time for play this spring, thanks to a sizable youth group in the area and a little quiet political leverage.

The work, which is about to start at Bushy Park Elementary and Glenwood Middle schools, will be paid for by Western Howard County Youth Baseball and Softball League in a deal reached this month with the county's Department of Education.

The project, estimated to cost about $40,000, is a first for the county, certainly in the past decade, in that the group will hire its own contractors to improve the fields' playing quality while satisfying county liability requirements.

The club also will accept responsibility for maintaining 10 school fields, and if it does so adequately, the potential is there for spending more and doing more corrective work on other school fields in coming years, said Brent White, president of the sports group.

It is a significant policy change for the school system. Most youth baseball and softball groups - as well as soccer and lacrosse groups - are heavily reliant on school playing fields. The school system owns the most playing fields in Howard County; the Department of Recreation and Parks owns fewer but maintains them better - and also charges more for their use.

In recent years, maintenance budgets for school-owned fields have been cut to virtually nothing. Complaints from parents and youth groups countywide about drainage problems, mowing, rutting, weeds, or no grass at all have multiplied while school officials steadfastly barred youth groups from making any alterations.

White credited initial groundwork by Donald Croce, his predecessor as club president; County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, who represents the western county; and Courtney Watson, the school board chairman, who has a son playing in the program, with facilitating changes in Department of Education policy to allow the club and contractors to work on school property.

"This is huge," said White. "It's taken years for it to happen, so we're delighted that we're getting the chance. The school people want to announce this as a partnership in another couple weeks, which is OK, if that will keep them happy. Things had gotten so bad with some of the fields we use that people were leaving our organization to have their children play elsewhere."

At Bushy Park Elementary School, he said, poor drainage that has led to ditches a foot deep in places will be rectified by building berms and swales that will reroute water from playing areas. The club will absorb that expense.

At Glenwood Middle, the field will be reconditioned and the infield stripped of grass - making it the proverbial sandlot - so all age groups can use it, also at club expense.

This summer, White said, the diamond for one of two fields at Clarksville Middle School will be switched to the opposite end of the playing space, with school crews doing the resurfacing and the club paying for fencing. For years, he said, both diamonds were adjoined, a design defect that has meant when both were in use simultaneously, players and spectators could be hit by balls from unexpected directions.

Moving the one diamond, White said, also will correct another safety issue, siting it so the sun does not glare directly at pitchers and fielders during some play.

Combined, the adjoining Glenwood Middle and Bushy Park school are considered "the hub" of the 2,000-player youth group's operations, although fields at eight other schools are used, as well. The club also uses some rec-and-parks diamonds.

Kittleman got involved, he said, because three of his four children have played or are playing softball and baseball in the organization.

The issue got Watson's attention, she said, because when she won her spot on the school board a year ago, she knew of the rising number of complaints about poor field maintenance.

"They were from all over the county. When I started asking about how things might be changed, I got answers like, it hadn't been done before, there were risk issues, and on and on," said Watson, who played three varsity sports as a teen-ager at Atholton High School, also Kittleman's alma mater, although they attended at different times. "I was just appalled at the bureaucracy of it."

She and Kittleman asked Gary J. Arthur, director of the Department of Recreation and Parks, what his agency spent on ball diamond maintenance; it is about $15,000 a year for each field. The school system, as Watson put it, "pays about 10 times less."

But Watson said that because of her employment in commercial insurance, "I knew it could be fixed," adding: "We're very intent on solving the problems because it's a quality-of-life thing, as well as a safety thing."

She and Kittleman agreed that to improve field maintenance with county finances strained and unlikely to ease in the near future, the answer has to be public and private-sector cooperation and partnerships.

That is a position being heard increasingly among the county's youth sports groups, as well. And leaders of most clubs say privately they could afford to pay for some maintenance work, if by no other way then passing the costs along to their members.

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