By Mike Allen
August 27, 2017 (San Diego’s East County) -- When West Hills High School in Santee replaced its artificial turf field in April, the feeling among the school’s administrators, staff and students was positive.
The old artificial football field in the school’s signature Wolf Pack blue had been wearing down, and needed upgrading, said West Hills Athletic Director Don Rutledge.
“Obviously after seven years it’s going to look worn,” Rutledge said. “Its condition had deteriorated.”
But it was still safe for students’ use. That was not a problem, he added.
West Hill’s field replacement was done in tandem with replacing fields at two other Grossmont Union High School District schools, Monte Vista and El Cajon Valley, about the same time. According to the school district, the three fields were covered under an eight-year warranty from the seller, Field Turf USA, which became the district’s sole- source provider in 2007.
Grossmont’s experience with FieldTurf differs from many other customers, which have taken the Montreal-based company to court, claiming breach of contract and other problems associated with fields showing clear defects well before their warranties expired.
At least five California school districts filed lawsuits against FieldTurf USA in recent years to force the company to pay for replacement fields when the original artificial fields began failing well before the warranty period was up, and sometimes soon after the fields were installed.
According to several suits, FieldTurf was knowingly selling fields that contained a defective product called Duraspine. That material proved so problematic that FieldTurf filed suit against the provider company, TenCate, in 2011. The two companies reached an out of court settlement in May, 2014 for an undisclosed amount.
When school districts complained about defects occurring well before the warranty expired, FieldTurf offered to replace the fields with the same Duraspine material at no cost, or replace it with a newer, more resilient turf product for a price that ranged from about $300,000 to $500,000, depending on the size of the field.
Some districts, including Grossmont, decided to replace failing fields with the same Duraspine that would eventually fail again. But in 2015, the district decided to take FieldTurf’s offer, and voted to spend a combined $948,000 to install new artificial turf fields at Grossmont High School and El Capitan High School.
“We paid $519,000 for the Grossmont HS turf replacement and $429,000 for the El Cap HS replacement,” said GUHSD spokeswoman Catherine Martin in an email.
The other field replacements contained the same Duraspine material, which has a record of wearing down much faster in sunnier, warmer climates. In West Hills case, if the new replacement fails before eight years is up or 2025, GUHSD will be on the hook; FieldTurf provided no additional warranty on the new field, Martin said.
East County Magazine requested all the financial data related to all contracts with FieldTurf and other documents related to the FieldTurf connection, but except for a few reports, the district declined to provide the full records.
GUHSD continues to state that the company’s fields have performed as expected, and that FieldTurf replaced deteriorated fields at no cost to the district----except of course for the two fields that were purchased in 2015.
San Diego County school districts spent some $33 million over the last decade with FieldTurf, many of those purchases coming during a time when FieldTurf was suing its key vendor, TenCate, alleging it was providing a defective product, according to an analysis last year by the Voice of San Diego.
Despite growing evidence of problems and failing fields, FieldTurf was able to convince some school districts, including Grossmont Union High Schools and the San Diego Unified, that it was the best-of-class leader in the artificial turf category, and deserved to skip the competitive bidding process by getting boards to confer sole source status on it.
According to a GUHSD board resolution approved in January 2007, “FieldTurf is unique enough in its function based on the turf’s porous backing system, durability and warranty; and that it is in the best interests of the district to call for a name brand with no substitutions permitted when purchasing or bidding for artificial turf.”
In addition, the same resolution stated that FieldTurf “has proven to be the only brand of turf holding up well under normal use for a period of more than five years.”
When East County Magazine requested some research and/or reasons for awarding FieldTurf sole source status, the district said it used a technical evaluation done by San Diego Unified School District. Requests to interview GUHSD staff personnel and board trustees involved in naming FieldTurf as the sole source provider were denied.
However, there is some evidence to show some GUHSD staff weren’t so thrilled about FieldTurf’s fields.
According to the four-part VOSD story, in an email from GUHSD project manager Dena Johnson to FieldTurf representative Tim Coury on Jan. 31, 2013, she wrote “Tim, we purchased a Fieldturf field for Granite Hills High School about three or four years ago and we are having issues:
1. We have seams that are coming apart.
2. We have a discoloring going on all over the field.
3. We have turf fraying going on.”
Coury responded that it would be best if GUHSD upgraded to the company’s improved product. “It would be great if you can find a way to ‘upgrade’ to our latest technology….FieldTurf Revolution,” he wrote back.
Many school districts succumbed to such tactics and shelled out more money for the so-called improved technology. After Carlsbad High School saw its field deteriorate just five years after it was installed, it paid for the improved FieldTurf version. That brought Carlsbad High School’s turf bill to $942,000 for the original field and the replacement, according to the VOSD story.
“Why would we have more of the same failing product,” said Suzanne O’Connell, Carlsbad deputy superintendent in the story.
Peter Lindborg, a Glendale attorney representing several California school districts in lawsuits against FieldTurf, said the big losers in the turf purchases are taxpayers who are the ultimate funders for all public schools.
Public agencies are not getting what they paid for, and are paying for new fields that should have been replaced for free if they failed before the warranty expired, he said.
“FieldTurf is not doing the right thing, and school districts have had to spend a lot of money on legal fees for them to get replacements,” Lindborg said.
His firm recently obtained settlements from FieldTurf for two California districts, Crystal Springs Uplands School and Bret Harte Union High School Districts. It is continuing to litigate on behalf of another client, Chaffey Joint Union High School District in San Bernardino County.
FieldTurf addressed some of the legal issues it’s been dealing with on its website, http://www.fieldturf.com/en/ The company said some media reports have told only one side of the Duraspine story, or have twisted the facts. It was particularly critical of a multi-part series by the New Jersey Star-Ledger, stating that Duraspine has not proven to fail in low UV environments such as New Jersey.
Eric Daliere, FieldTurf CEO, in a recorded video, said that Duraspine fibers in high UV areas (such as the South and West) were “not properly protected against radiation.”
He said the company acknowledged the problems, and worked with its customers to address the issues. “Have we been perfect in the way we engaged with those customers? No, we haven’t been perfect,” Daliere said.
FieldTurf, which was founded in 1988 by two Canadians, was acquired by the Tarkett Group, a multi-national flooring corporation based in Paris, several years ago. Tarkett reported total 2016 revenue of more than $3.2 billion; it has more than 12,000 employees worldwide.