Workers install FieldTurf at a San Diego State University practice field
Workers install FieldTurf at a San Diego State University practice field. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

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

FieldTurf USA accomplished the seemingly impossible in recent years.

The artificial turf company managed to convince several public school districts to give all their turf jobs to FieldTurf, claiming they offered a superior product and warranty — all while grappling with a defective product installed at as many as 3,000 schools.

Grass blades quickly faded, laid flat or tore out entirely, causing shedding and bald spots. In some cases, the fields raised safety concerns and caused dilemmas for districts that sometimes ended with them shelling out more public money to FieldTurf.

Districts that saw their fields fall apart while still under warranty were pushed to “upgrade” their turf for $25,000 to $300,000 more, or risk it with a free replacement field that used the same turf that failed.

Yet it’s FieldTurf’s quality, warranty terms and a desire for district uniformity that public officials claimed allowed them to skip a competitive bidding process normally required by state law for public works projects and use only FieldTurf products.

The school boards at San Diego Unified, Grossmont Union High School District, Carlsbad Unified, San Dieguito Union High School District and the San Diego Community College District declared FieldTurf the district standard for turf material. Doing so allows them to bypass all other turf brands and makes FieldTurf’s contract a sure thing.

“The District has found that FieldTurf’s resistance to UV light and regular wear and tear has proven to be more durable than other artificial turf brands used throughout the County,” a June 2008 resolution passed by the San Diego Community College District board said.

UV light was a major cause of FieldTurf’s failures nationwide and locally. The company sued its grass supplier, TenCate, in 2011, blaming it for a defect that caused fields to fail prematurely. A jury trial in 2014 was cut short when TenCate paid FieldTurf an undisclosed amount to settle the dispute.

FieldTurf’s local customer base remained strong during and after the litigation.

Grossmont’s project manager Dena Johnson emailed El Capitan High School’s facility manager in September 2013:

“So, if you ever want to replace your turf which is 8 years old, you have to use FieldTurf they are the Governing Board approved vendor”

More than a year later, when Grossmont High needed a new field, Grossmont’s director of purchasing, Rian Pinson, told project manager Chris Rizzuti in an email:

“Lorrie us (sic) looking into this for pricing. We definitely do not need other quotes because this is the district standard turf approved by the board”

No-bid, sole-source deals, as they’re often called, played a large role in helping FieldTurf corner and hold onto the lucrative public artificial turf market in the region. The company has made at least $33 million installing fields at the county’s public schools in the last decade and is in line to get millions more in the next few years from San Diego Unified, public records reviewed by Voice of San Diego show.

FieldTurf’s warranty replacement tactics are the subject of school district lawsuits elsewhere in the state and country. No local districts have sued to date.

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.

“You are putting all your eggs in one basket,” said Larry Foster, a Bay Area landscape architect routinely hired to design synthetic turf fields for schools. “If you have FieldTurf putting in two to three fields over here, and Astroturf putting in two to three, so what? You are going to get more competition.”

Foster finds San Diego County’s use of sole-source contracting for artificial fields problematic.

“There wasn’t any competition on those projects and the pricing reflected that,” Foster said, after reviewing FieldTurf payments for several local field projects.

A former FieldTurf executive who testified at the TenCate trial in 2014 said FieldTurf fetched the highest prices in the market, routinely a dollar more than the competition per square foot. That adds up when you are covering an 80,000 square foot football field.

The FieldTurf premium has borne out locally too when public officials bother to informally explore or bid other options, public records show.

Helix High School’s athletic director Damon Chase found that to be the case, writing in a December 2014 email to Grossmont district project manager Rizzuti:

“He is $100k higher than the other turf company I had give me a quote”

The charter school went with FieldTurf anyway last year, in part, because it was the Grossmont school district standard.

FieldTurf’s own turf pricing has swung dramatically when exposed to competition.

When the city of Encinitas put its Leo Mullen Sports Park turf job out to bid this year, it paid $455,000, or $5.32 per square foot, for FieldTurf’s premium Revolution turf. Compare that with the $6.46 per square foot paid for turf going in at Pacific Beach Middle School this year.

Officials at San Diego Unified stand by the decision to sole-source the turf for all district fields to FieldTurf, and spokeswoman Cynthia Reed-Porter said, “The FieldTurf product pricing is competitive in the market.”

“This is the equivalent of a company buying a fleet of Ford or Chevy vehicles to lower the cost, expedite fleet maintenance, train less mechanics, buy fewer spare parts, etc.,” Reed-Porter said in an email. “As another example, the district has two locksmiths. To make it easier to maintain locks at approximately 200 schools, we have standardized the brands of locks installed.”

Other turf companies have objected to the lack of competition on occasion, asking San Diego Unified to allow others to bid. District records show their requests were flatly denied. They just aren’t welcome.

True Turf CEO Frederick Quindt IV wrote to the district March 3, 2009:

“Surprisingly, I was told by Park West: ‘There’s really not a bid available for this project. FieldTurf is already getting the work. They’re already locked in.’ When I pressed how this could be the state of affairs when the deadline was still four days away, the representative said he couldn’t explain.”

In a March 9, 2009 reply letter to Quindt IV, San Diego Unified’s bond program director at the time, Stuart Markey, defended the district’s choice.

“The homogeneity of fields throughout the District makes it easier and less costly to maintain one type of field over many fields from different manufacturers,” Markey said. “For this reason, the District specified FieldTurf to match the existing artificial turf at schools throughout the District.”

Markey also praised FieldTurf’s “durability, warranty, maintenance costs, visual appearance, functionality, and product attributes.”

Before FieldTurf had a total lock on the turf jobs at San Diego Unified, one principal lobbied hard for FieldTurf.

“FieldTurf has shown itself to be the only reliable product out there,” Dana Shelburne, then La Jolla High’s principal, said in a 2006 email to district staff. “Why not make the specs equal to those of Fieldturf, then let those who want the business raise their standards?”

Shelburne then forwarded the emails to FieldTurf’s regional salesman Tim Coury, who has a history of aggressive sales tactics.

Poway Unified’s longtime director of facilities stressed the convenience of having to only pick up the phone to deal with one company when turf issues and needs arise across the district.

Poway has only allowed FieldTurf products since 2001, even though fields failed at Del Norte High, Meadowbrook Middle, Valley Elementary and Willow Grove Elementary.

In a 2002 email to a consultant designing a field for the Sweetwater Union High School District, Coury laid out the various ways public agencies “made sure they get the product they want in a public arena.” He included narrowly written field specifications for Sweetwater to use in its bid documents that would ensure FieldTurf got the job.

Some districts wrote bid requirements only FieldTurf could meet, while others specified FieldTurf by name, Coury explained in the email.

Still others sought a request for proposals from various companies but were “not obligated to except (sic) the low bid. In these cases, the client worked together with us to establish the budget … FieldTurf was chosen even though in the RFP process it was never the low bid,” Coury wrote.

A list provided to Sweetwater by Coury of those that skipped competitively bidding their field one way or another included Grossmont College, Hoover High, La Jolla High, Patrick Henry High, San Diego State University and Westview High School.

“Not one of these jobs, or any other in California or the entire West Coast, had any litigation to challenge their specifications,” Coury wrote in 2002. “The ploy to threaten litigation by competitors was used in a few entities but was ‘never’ challenged.”

Other districts choose to use the state’s cooperative purchasing agreement, called CMAS, to avoid competing the job locally. They simply piggyback off a state contract with FieldTurf and use those prices.

“This method will guarantee that you get FieldTurf. You won’t have to write the RFP to allow other products and then hope you get FieldTurf,” Mike Mele, with architectural design firm Mele Amantea, advised Grossmont Union High School District in a 2008 email.

The love affair with FieldTurf runs so deep, some school boards voted to make the brand the district standard for all future fields at the exact same time they voted to pay to replace defective FieldTurf fields that showed problems before the warranty was up.

Both Carlsbad Unified and San Dieguito Union High School District board leaders did so in April 2015. Carlsbad High’s replacement cost $150,000 and La Costa Canyon High’s cost $300,000.

Eric Dill, interim superintendent of the San Dieguito Union High School District, said the district did not intend to make FieldTurf its standard turf, even though both the architect and board item said, “Award of this contract will standardize the same synthetic turf field surfacing and supplemental pad system at all of the district’s high schools.”

Carlsbad’s board resolution – like the one approved by the San Diego Community College District – touted FieldTurf’s UV endurance, a weakness that ended up causing the company’s Duraspine field failures, like the one at Carlsbad High.

“The District has found that the FieldTurf brand’s resistance to UV light and regular wear and tear has proven to be more durable than other artificial turf brands used throughout the District,” the April 22, 2015, resolution said. “Carlsbad Unified School District determines that FieldTurf brand shall be the District-wide standard for artificial turf.”

Suzanne O’Connell, the district’s deputy superintendent, said the praise referred to the positive experience they had with a newer FieldTurf grass in use at Sage Creek High School and now Carlsbad High, the second time around.

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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