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Earlier this year, Poway Unified School District gave more than $800,000 in no-bid contracts to a company whose products have already failed the district multiple times.
Four of the district’s eight FieldTurf fields failed prematurely and needed to be replaced in 2015. Another field, at Westview High School, was replaced around 2006, only a couple years after it was installed. Officials had believed the fields would last a decade or more.
Still, the company got more work at Westview in April — without having to compete with others.
In one quick motion, without asking any critical questions and without considering any alternatives, Poway’s Board of Trustees awarded FieldTurf a $457,796 no-bid contract for turf replacement at Westview. It also gave Beynon Sports, which was acquired by FieldTurf, a $358,470 no-bid contract to replace the track surface at Poway High School.
California law allows public agencies to skip the bidding process if certain goods and services are already deemed by the state to be fair, reasonable and competitive. But participating in that practice is optional, not mandatory.
Although Poway Unified didn’t formally seek proposals for the Westview job, officials said in a statement they researched other companies in the industry and considered the concerns raised about FieldTurf. That included internet research, discussions with counterparts at other districts, product reviews and presentations at a conference. The district has not yet responded to a request to see the research.
“Ultimately, staff was confident that the product concern had been addressed and our experience with their product and their customer service made them the logical choice,” said Chad Koster, the current director of facilities, in a statement provided by the district office.
His optimism is at odds with at least one other district employee.
In 2014, Michael Tarantino, then the district’s director of maintenance and operations, appeared in a Forbes article after schools across the country began suing FieldTurf for its faulty product.
The lawsuits alleged FieldTurf had sold deficient goods and then demanded more money for stronger materials when the fields began deteriorating prematurely. Those unwilling to find the additional cash would get the same weak grass.
“I think you are seeing buyer’s remorse of artificial turf fields because communities quickly lose sight of the replacement costs associated with artificial turf,” Tarantino told Forbes.
But whatever doubt Tarantino may have harbored for the artificial turf industry generally, he continued to give his blessing — and help direct taxpayer dollars — to FieldTurf specifically. That tradition continues to this day, even after Tarantino retired. While the district’s ongoing support of the company may be confounding, it’s not uncommon.
Two years ago, a VOSD investigation found that defective fields installed by the company between 2006 and 2011 at school districts across San Diego County were rapidly falling apart. Few public school officials pushed back against the company. By then, FieldTurf had cornered the Southern California market and had made at least $33 million installing fields at San Diego County schools over the preceding decade.
FieldTurf sued its artificial grass supplier, blaming it for the product failures. The two parties settled mid-trial in 2014. Before they walked away, one former executive and the son of the FieldTurf’s founder testified that the company had known of problems with the turf since late 2006. And the company’s CEO, Eric Daliere, acknowledged in court that the company had continued to install defective products after suing the supplier, because the company didn’t want to “create a problem for the school by throwing the bid process up.”
Instead, the company offered to replace the turf with the same material, as stipulated in the eight-year warranty. If the districts wanted better materials, they would need to pay for upgrades — anywhere between $25,000 and $300,000.
By late 2016, five local school districts had upgraded to the premium turf and together spent more than $936,000.
FieldTurf argued that only a fraction of its products had failed and that it had since made changes to its supplier. But even some of those premium turf fields began to deteriorate early. In some cases, the company came back and dumped gallons of glue to keep the turf intact.
“We stood ready to stand by our warranty and we have,” Daliere testified in 2014.
The free replacement wasn’t always free. In 2015, Poway Unified put up $54,000 — half of which was reimbursed by the city of Poway, which jointly uses some of those fields — because the warranty didn’t cover laser leveling and regrading.
Still, local school officials have defended the company at every opportunity or avoided the subject altogether.
Poway Unified’s resolution in April authorizing the district to purchase and install a new synthetic field at Westview High concludes that the district’s “experience with this company has encompassed excellent customer service and excellent product warranties.” The project was completed over the summer, and its approval was included on the school board’s consent calendar, where routine items like meeting minutes and student body reports are traditionally placed.
None of the trustees asked for more information at the time, and none returned requests for interviews.
Poway Unified has only allowed for FieldTurf products on its property since around 2001, selecting the company as its standard-bearer. In one email, obtained by VOSD in 2016, a Poway Unified official stressed the convenience of having to only pick up the phone and deal with a single company when problems arise.
Officials at other school districts, like San Diego Unified, have also stressed “uniformity” and said FieldTurf’s people were honest and easy to work with.
But their products weren’t necessarily the cheapest.
There’s some evidence that turf pricing has swung dramatically when exposed to competition. During the trial in 2014, one former FieldTurf executive testified that the company routinely charged more than a dollar more than competitors per square foot.
Emails records obtained by VOSD in 2016 showed that the athletic director at a charter school in Grossmont gathered quotes and found that Fieldturf’s offer was $100,000 higher than another. But the school went with FieldTurf, in part, because it had previously been deemed the district’s standard-bearer.