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

San Diego Unified had at least six FieldTurf fields fall apart before the warranty was up, and two were replaced with the same defective product. Still, district officials have such confidence in the company, no other turf manufacturer has been allowed to compete for jobs within the district.

This is Part Three in a four-part series. Read Part One, Part Two and Part Four

Twenty artificial turf fields that once gleamed in the San Diego sun have quickly fallen apart over the last decade thanks to a defect.

The field failures have created dilemmas for school districts that tried to get replacements from FieldTurf USA under the manufacturer’s eight-year warranty. Often, schools were faced with the option of choosing a free replacement with the same defective material, or paying thousands of dollars more to upgrade to a non-defective product that would hold up as originally promised.

San Diego Unified – the region’s largest FieldTurf buyer – had at least two defective fields replaced with more of the same turf that failed.

Still, school district officials have nothing but praise for the company and say there are no plans to change vendors for dozens of upcoming field projects. They also credit FieldTurf with initiating the replacement of five fields before staff even noticed any trouble.

“The district continued to use FieldTurf because the company honored its warranties and proactively replaced fields that might deteriorate in the future at no cost. To date, FieldTurf continues to honor its product warranties,” district spokeswoman Cynthia Reed-Porter said in an email.

Voice of San Diego scoured thousands of San Diego Unified documents and sought an interview with district officials to discuss the district’s FieldTurf history. Officials declined multiple interview requests and instead made defensive, misleading and at times outright dishonest claims by email.

For starters, Reed-Porter said district fields were replaced for free under warranty before they actually failed as a preventative measure.

“The FieldTurf fields in San Diego Unified did not fail. It would be inaccurate for you insinuate or report in your story,” she wrote Sept. 21. “According to FieldTurf at the time, the fields were beginning to show signs of wear, and might not last though (sic) the entire warranty period.”

That’s not quite what district and FieldTurf officials said in emails when $1.5 million worth of FieldTurf Duraspine turf installed in 2010 at Mira Mesa, San Diego and Morse high schools needed replacement after only four years.

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morse

In 2014, San Diego Unified civil engineer Loren Chico confirmed FieldTurf’s “need to perform a warranty replacement of the defective fields at Mira Mesa HS, Morse HS and San Diego HS,” after FieldTurf’s own staff wrote the “fiber on the field has failed.”

Chico then emailed the three schools, saying: “The carpet this field was made with in 2009 is defective and has deteriorated to the point where it needs to be replaced.”

On another occasion, Chico told a fellow employee in an email, “these fields are rapidly deteriorating.”

Like with other customers, FieldTurf tried to get San Diego Unified to replace the turf with more of the same defective product at the trio of schools, but staff made a rare move and pushed back.

San Diego Unified architect Bill Henning wrote in a 2013 email to a FieldTurf representative:

“It was further indicated that replacement with the same (defective) product did not seem like an appropriate direction in which to proceed and/or for the district to accept as a solution, insofar as correcting a faulty product for which the district previously contracted.”

According to district officials, FieldTurf changed course and instead installed a non-defective turf line free of charge, just weeks after the company settled its lawsuit with its turf supplier, TenCate.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the two fields replaced years earlier at Scripps Ranch and Lincoln high schools. Both high schools had their 2006 FieldTurf fields – which cost over $1 million combined – replaced for free in 2009 with Duraspine turf, the line that originally failed.

This is where the most flagrant claims arose.

For weeks, Reed-Porter repeatedly denied the district ever received the problematic Duraspine turf in a replacement field. In a series of emails, the district adamantly stood by its story: San Diego Unified was not like the rest and did not get defective Duraspine turf in any of its free field replacements.

“The replacements were not the same material. It was the district’s understanding that the replacements were free of manufacturer defects,” Reed-Porter wrote Sept 24.

“The fields were replaced with a non-Duraspine material,” she said again twice on Sept. 27.

On Oct. 6, Reed-Porter wrote, “According to the information we have, Lincoln and Scripps received a non-Duraspine material replacement.”

Only after FieldTurf confirmed for Voice of San Diego the district’s claims about Lincoln and Scripps were wrong did Reed-Porter admit the error and call it a “misunderstanding.” Even then, she said the Duraspine fields, together, fulfilled the original eight-year warranty at the schools “which benefits of (sic) our students and the district.”

Despite the district’s unending praise for FieldTurf, records show all is not rosy on-field these days.

Maintenance employee Frank Shuman said in a May 16 email to FieldTurf, “I am hearing that we are having some trouble with some of (the) football fields with the turf pulling out.”

FieldTurf employee Tim Coury responded six minutes later, “Happy to discuss.”

San Diego Unified’s fondness for FieldTurf goes back more than a decade, during which time FieldTurf was paid more than $15 million for 44 fields large and small, including the freebies. That total does not include a handful of district fields for which no payment records could be located by staff.

For the turf grass and infill alone, a standard high school football field routinely costs the district $500,000 to $600,000 or more for 80,000 to 100,000 square feet of turf, while smaller elementary school fields can cost $100,000 to $200,000 or more for 30,000 to 60,000 square feet, records show.

And FieldTurf is in line for much more San Diego taxpayer cash.

San Diego Unified is midway through its plan to install 55 new turf fields by 2019, many at elementary schools. All will be funded with taxpayer money from Propositions S and Z and, despite its mixed track record, all will be purchased from FieldTurf.

The district has had such confidence in FieldTurf over the years, no other manufacturer has been allowed to compete for the turf job. Public officials continue to argue FieldTurf’s superior product and warranty allows them to skip competitive bidding normally required by state law for public works projects.

Next in the series: FieldTurf USA managed to convince several public school districts to give all their turf jobs to the company, claiming it offered a superior product and warranty all while grappling with a defective product installed at as many as 3,000 fields.

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