San Diego County’s public schools funneled tens of millions of dollars to an artificial turf company that spent years installing a defective product, and then demanded schools pay more money for a sturdy replacement.

Here are five takeaways from my investigation into how FieldTurf USA handled its local field failures.

Taxpayers have been left holding the bag.

One way or another, public schools – and by extension, taxpayers – have paid the price for a private company’s defective product as more than 20 artificial turf fields failed throughout the region in the last decade. Grass blades are fading, tearing out and shedding, creating bald spots only a couple years after installation.

When the turf fell apart prematurely, FieldTurf often asked customers to choose between another defective field (the free choice) or an upgraded, sturdier turf for thousands of dollars more. Some public agencies paid up, even though their first field was still under warranty. Others chose a free replacement, and the results showed.

FieldTurf officials argue they’re fulfilling their warranty if two defective fields for the price of one together cover the eight-year warranty period.

School districts elsewhere in the state and country have sued FieldTurf for failing to replace defective fields with a better one free of charge. They say FieldTurf kept selling schools bad turf after they knew it was defective, and after they sued a supplier over it.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Though public records show local schools endured the exact same tactics and paid the price, most local public officials have nothing but praise for the company.

FieldTurf kept schools in the dark.

FieldTurf sued its grass supplier TenCate in March 2011 for more than $30 million, blaming it for the defective fields, which could not withstand the years of sunshine and athletic use promised.

FieldTurf settled the lawsuit in 2014 and obtained an unknown amount of money to help pay for replacements, but did not notify all affected customers about the problems and kept charging them for upgrades.

FieldTurf did tell San Diego Unified some fields needed replacing before staff noticed any trouble, and used a quality turf at all but two of the district’s replacement fields.

FieldTurf’s salesman used troubling tactics.

When schools sought warranty replacements for their defective fields, they got fewer apologies than “offers” and “opportunities” to spend more money to upgrade to better turf.

One salesman tried to require new business as a condition for providing a free field replacement. In Oceanside, he went even further in his quest for new business and offered a teacher money to help him “close the deal.”

San Diego Unified was not truthful about its FieldTurf experience.

Six San Diego Unified FieldTurf fields were replaced under warranty in recent years, but officials claimed they had experienced no field failures. They said the fields were replaced as a preventative measure, and they were adamant that none of the replacements came with more bad turf.

According to the district’s own records, neither of those claims is true.

FieldTurf still has a lock on the region’s public school turf work.

Several public agencies – including San Diego Unified, the second largest school district in the state – have skipped the public bidding normally required by state law for large public works projects. They argue FieldTurf’s quality and warranty are so superior, they do not need to consider any other brands.

Some school boards declared FieldTurf the district standard turf at the same meeting they voted to pay thousands of dollars more to replace fields still under warranty.

Had local schools not used FieldTurf for all their turf jobs, they may not have been so negatively impacted by the defective product. They likely would have saved some serious money, too.

Read the Whole Series

Part I: Across the County, Taxpayer-Funded Turf Fields Are Falling Apart After Just a Few Years

Part II: The Consummate Salesman

Part III: Despite Failures, San Diego Unified Just Can’t Quit FieldTurf

Part IV: How a Turf Company With High Prices and a Defective Product Cornered the SD Market

Want to know how much your local school paid FieldTurf? This map shows all the FieldTurf fields and costs Voice of San Diego could document with public records provided by San Diego County’s public schools and colleges. Some agencies said older field records had been destroyed, while others simply could not be located.

    This article relates to: Education, Must Reads, News, School Finances

    Written by Ashly McGlone

    Ashly is an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. She can be reached at or 619.550.5669.

    john stump
    john stump subscriber

    JOHN H BORJA. Your analysis of the benefits of natural turf versus grass carpeting was very good, but it missed the reasoning behind SD UNIFIED's choice to buy carpet rather than maintain grass.

    Its a Budget category choice.  Turf Maintenance is on the regular operational Budget while buying artificial grass carpet is under the credit card Bond borrowing Budget.  City Schools is nearly bankrupt and facing a $130 million dollar budget shortfall, for next year ( not including the pension shortfall).  So the Board of Trustees will borrow money to put costs off budget.  It does not matter what's best for children or what saves taxpayers money,  Besides the politician s get support from the building contractors and construction labor unions who benefit from an endless borrow and build scheme.

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    There are a number of negative issues with turf, that is, artificial turf. But, the negatives outweigh the positives, but not by much. 

    San Diego is not water rich. So, the idea of reducing or cancelling irrigation is, at first glance, a big savings. The problem of irrigation, nevertheless, is about timing. Golf courses don't use turf. It is antithetical to the sport of golfing. So, golf courses know that irrigation is crucial to maintaining "the greens".  How do they do that in a semi-arid environment? Easy. They irrigate when the sun is down and well before the sun is up. 

       So, what is the problem of "turf" for schools? Laziness. Grounds keepers usually wear multiple hats. They are janitors and field maintenance personnel. So, what's the problem? School personnel go home when the kids go home....3 or 4 p.m. They will turn on the irrigation systems when they arrive at 8a.m. and turn them off at 3p.m. So? Irrigating when the sun is "up" is counterproductive. Most of the year, San Diego, and that means all of San Diego County, is sunny nearly 300 days out of the year. 

    That means that irrigating during the day allows that most of the water will evaporate and soaking will not occur. That means that water will be wasted and that also means that water will cost more.

        So, an easy solution is installing "timers" that would irrigate natural turf fields after 9pm and shut off before 6a.m. 

           Use. Artificial turf fields can "take" the abuse of overuse. The answer to this is, yes. The problem is that over time overuse leads to premature need to replace artificial turf. So? Artificial turf is NOT cheap. It costs more than $1 million for a football field. That football field will need to be replaced in less than 10 years.  

             Natural grass requires water, fertilizer, and a lawn mower. And, the grass(seed) is renewable.  The "mower" is a time and money constraint. 

              So far, an artificial turf field seems cost effective. 

               Note that U.S. Men's Soccer plays on natural turf fields. The women's soccer team has complained that they have been forced to play on artificial turf fields. Why?  Injuries.  When you land on natural turf the grass and the ground help to cushion the fall. On artificial turf, there are far more bone crushing injuries. Why? Try tussling on a rug at home without, at least, carpet padding. Not good. It hurts. Add to that experience a slide and you get "carpet burn". Add to that any scrapes, cuts, or abrasions as a result and you get infections. The turf fields retain germs. 

               Are these issues common? Yes. 

               Then, there is the issue of weather temperature. If the weather is San Diego "cold"(below 55 degrees) or if the weather temperature is San Diego "hot"(above 80 degrees) artificial turf fields are unforgiving. In cold an athletic "fall" is like hitting concrete. In hot an athletic "fall" is searing, particularly on the feet.  Grass and earth are forgiving in both instances. 

              So, we return to cost. If natural turf fields are managed appropriately, the cost vs. artificial turf is far less and ....renewable. The guarantee for an artificial turf field extends to about 15 years. In reality, most artificial turf fields are in need of replacement by the tenth year or earlier. That's a million bucks for the initial installment and two million the next time, due to inflation or because the turf company deems the price hike. 

              So, calculating the actuarial charts for the cost of water, the cost of labor, the cost of injury, and the cost of replacement, natural turf wins. 

               The problem is convincing school districts to closely monitor the activities of their "maintenance staffs" and water useage.  

    liz harley
    liz harley

    My kids were at Patrick Henry when the first turf field was put in.  I remember the AD going up and down the football stands with pieces of turf and building up excitement of how great it was going to be for the "boys".  I asked why not the girls - such as the field hockey team, and was shut down pretty quickly.

       Five years later, my son would come home with piece of ground up tire rubber in his shoes, his clothes and his lacrosse gear.  The field was having trouble with hidden holes under the turf.  The field was supposed to last 10 years.  We were told that the district was supposed to have purchased a machine that would re-distribute the ground up rubber bits.  I am assuming sort of like "mowing" the field.  Except the machine was never purchased.  A new turf was put in.  I don't believe the original turf lasted 10 years.

    James Rivera
    James Rivera

    It gets worse. Studies are underway that seem to lean towards saying that field turf releases chemicals that are carcinogenic and otherwise harmful to your health.

    john stump
    john stump subscriber

    @James Rivera It frankly doesn't matter how negative or costly the facts about this turf carpet are.  As long as the costs of turf maintenance and replacement are off the regular budget and on the Bond borrowing Budget the District is going to keep doing it .  Next year the are $130,000,000 dollars in the hole and enrollment keeps going down.  The only competitive edge District run schools is the big gyms and athletic fields as academics can be taught under a tree like Socrates.   They certainly not going to ask each of the Districts 10,000 employees to take a $13,000 pay cut which is the level of cuts needed.

    Joe DiGeronimo
    Joe DiGeronimo

    Nice Job, Ashley. Sorry I couldn't help. But it doesn't stop at just Fieldturf. 

    john stump
    john stump subscriber

    Thank you for this good investigative writing.

    Part of the story that you did not bring to the forefront is that the move to plastic carpet turf was to remove this cost from the regular operational budget and put it on the special taxpayer credit card at 600% interest, financed over 40 years.  Yeas taxpayers this is part of the School Bond schemes.

    city Schools only needs a 55% vote to borrow money for turf carpeting instead of a 66% vote for taxes to maintain natural grass.

    The real shame and scandal is that given the short useful life of the plastic turf carpet is will have to be replaced 7 more times, at credit card interest, before the first discarded turf carpet is paid for , under the 40 year financing plans.

    Given the fact that City Schools is facing a $130,000,000 dollar budget shortfall, why are they choosing the worlds most expensive and dangerous brain injury sport as its primary high school academic sport.  It would be interesting to see how much Foot ball costs , including injury lawsuits, compared to other sports?

    Fred Williams
    Fred Williams subscriber

    Don't forget that the taxpayers also pick up the tab when the kids playing violent contact sports on those fields receive lifelong injuries.

    Why are such sports part of the school at all?  It's immoral.  Time to get football out of the school altogether, saving money and lives.

    john stump
    john stump subscriber

    @Fred Williams

    More and more , I have the feeling that there is a racial bias undertone to the mainly soccer culture district forcing football on them.

    Fred Williams
    Fred Williams subscriber

    @john stump @Fred Williams

    I've got to wonder why San Diego has anything to do with a game meant to be played in frosty New England.

    Imagine if schools taught skateboarding instead?  Or surfing?  Actual San Diego sports.

    Dennis subscriber

    @Fred Williams FYI, girls/boys soccer, field hockey, track/field and girls/boys lacrosse are also played on the same turf. It is not just football. 

    Fred Williams
    Fred Williams subscriber

    @Dennis @Fred Williams 

    And all of those sports should be outside of the academic realm.  There is no logical reason for cramming games into education.

    Still, the overwhelming justification for the expense of these fields is none of the sports you mentioned.  It's always football. A violent, harmful, anti-social violent contact sport that results in an average of 12 deaths every year, year after year, of student athletes nationwide, in addition to thousands of lifelong injuries.

    The rest of the world stands amazed that we allow this to happen to our young people.  If San Diego wants to be "world class" the first step should be to eliminate sports like these from the curriculum.  If kids and their parents want to participate in football or MMA cage fighting, they can form clubs and leagues that are not paid for by the rest of us.

    Enough is enough already.  Did the wasted life and tragic death of Junior Seau teach us nothing?