When Prince William County Public Schools’ Superintendent Steve Walts first presented his proposed $1.2 billion budget Feb. 7 for the 2018-19 school year, Stonewall Jackson in Manassas was the only high school scheduled to receive a turf field.
But that line item soon changed. In March, the county released a revised spending plan that approved a $1.5 million turf field as well for Woodbridge High School.
Two high schools were now getting turf fields same school year, a first for the county.
Currently three of the county’s 12 high schools have turf fields, while another will add one this fall. But each was installed in a separate budget year.
Patriot was the first when the school opened in 2011. In 2012, Potomac became the second followed four years later when Colgan opened in 2016. Freedom, which opened in 2004, will have its turf field installed by July.
How did Woodbridge receive approval after not being part of the original budget? Credit two sources: an intense lobbying effort by a group called Parents Who Care (PWC) and the support of their school board member Lillie Jessie.
Since the spring of 2017, PWC, a group initially formed to focus on Woodbridge-area schools, had a list of structural and facility issues at 44-year-old Woodbridge High School they wanted to see fixed, including the stadium field and its poor drainage system.
But as they heard more about the dismal field conditions, the group began pushing for a turf field for the next school year.
Although the field’s drainage issues were nothing new, PWC felt no one was pushing the need for a new field.
“The problem in the past is that people weren’t complaining,” said PWC member Jennifer Gilley, who had one son on the 2017 Woodbridge football team and another in the school’s band. “It was like there’s not a problem.”
The issue reached the forefront after the football team’s success in the fall. The Vikings tied a school record for wins with 12 and qualified for the state semifinals.
To prepare for the playoffs, Woodbridge wanted to use its stadium field with markings to simulate game situations rather than remain on their ragged practice field.
With the sun setting earlier due to daylight savings time, the team also wanted to practice under lights, something the practice field did not have.
But to preserve an already-beat up stadium field for games, the Vikings transported the entire team to Potomac twice a week for five weeks to practice on the Panthers’ turf field.
The move came with extra expenses and time: Woodbridge principal Heather Abney paid for transportation out of the school’s budget. Woodbridge head football coach Gary Wortham and activities director George Washington covered the costs of feeding the players by paying it themselves. And players got home late.
“It made for a long day for the kids,” Wortham said.
But Woodbridge felt it had no other choice than to seek a more suitable field.
“People were under this misconception we had overwatered our field,” said Wortham, who maintains the field himself. “We stopped with the irrigation the last week of September. It did not drain and that created a huge hazard.”
The problem not only affected football but other activities as well for the school of 2,583 students.
Complaints only increased from visiting teams during the football playoffs when Woodbridge hosted three straight weekends.
To trump up support for a turf field, PWC members took on different roles. Gilley was responsible for getting parents and students to speak at school board meetings. Kate Olson-Flynn, who will have a daughter enter Woodbridge next fall, set up meetings and wrote letters.
Woodbridge athletes who used the field, including field hockey, lacrosse and football, implored school board members to approve a turf field for safety considerations. With divots all over the field caused by constant usage, the athletes were prone to suffer twisted ankles or worst.
“We kept talking to the [school] board members,” said Olson-Flynn. “We brought more kids to talk. And the football team was doing well. That made an impact.”
When the initial budget came out, PWC became more fired up after learning only Stonewall was receiving a turf field for 2018-19.
“We didn’t want them to take [the turf field] from Stonewall, but why can’t you give one to us,” said Olson-Flynn.
PWC continued its fight by talking to Jessie. Jessie helped push the measure through after receiving the requisite number of votes for approval from the nine-member school board.
The next question is when installation of the turf field and track will begin. One company said it could do it this summer in preparation for the fall season. But no contract has been awarded by the school division as it goes through the process of receiving bids. And chances are whoever is awarded the bid, the field won’t be ready until the fall of 2019.
Although PWC requested other items that were not approved, including the construction of a field house, they were grateful for the turf field.
“It’s a start,” Olson-Flynn said.
David Fawcett is the sports editor for InsideNoVa. Reach him at email@example.com