Palm Beach County grounds crew doesn't have much green, but makes sure athletic fields are
Thursday, July 12, 2012
by Jeff Greer
June represents freedom for high school students, teachers and administrators. They escape school grounds and sashay into summer vacation.
Their downtime comes at a little-known critical point for the school district’s facility services department, which must revitalize the more than 90 athletic fields that the county’s public middle and high schools plan to use for the fall sports seasons.
“We’re kind of like ‘the man behind the curtain’ from the Wizard of Oz,” joked Fred Cahill, facilities management administrator for Palm Beach County. “It’s an important time for us.”
Cahill runs a crew of nine employees, with one pest-control and one irrigation specialist also available to help his team. In June, that group circulates through Palm Beach County’s 23 high schools and 34 middle schools, aerating, patching and recrowning baseball, football and softball fields on a roughly $150,000 budget for the month, peanuts for the amount of required work.
They fight all kinds of battles, from last year’s post-drought dead grass to this summer’s post-rain-season weeds, and it’s getting tougher to win those fracases as the school district makes more and more cuts. Cahill let 12 employees go last year, in addition to eliminating three other positions in his department.
The school grounds budget, which includes landscaping, irrigation, pest control, grounds maintenance, supplies and vendors for all school grounds, has dropped more than $1.2 million since the fiscal year 2009, with the 2012 fiscal year dealing with more than $600,000 in cuts alone.
To make do, Cahill brought over extra help from his tree-trimming and parking-lot crews, and they’ve done enough to keep up with the constant flow of work.
Area coaches and athletic directors echo similar sentiments, that even with the cuts and always-prevalent frustrations that come with maintaining fields, the facilities team could do a lot worse.
“They really do the best they can,” said Seminole Ridge Athletic Director Scott Parks. “They’re very conscientious.”
Some schools have agreements with outside vendors to complement the facilities crew. Parks said Seminole Ridge uses a private company, owned by a Seminole Ridge football player’s father, to help fertilize and weed the school’s main athletic field from May to November. Other schools do the same, Cahill said, and go through the county to get the work approved.
The biggest challenge is keeping people off the fields for June, something that’s more difficult than it sounds. Some schools cooperate more than others — it’s popular for high and middle schools to rent out their fields to local groups for extra cash — but the coordination between the school district and its schools has dramatically improved under Cahill’s direction, former county athletics administrator Yetta Greene said.
“He does a fantastic job of communicating with everyone, showing his face and being available,” said Greene. “It’s an incredibly tough job keeping everyone happy.”
It’s even tougher keeping those fields green and ready, considering many schools, like Lake Worth High, don’t have anywhere else for physical education classes to go or teams to practice.
“We’ve been lucky we haven’t had to close any fields,” Cahill said. “I’d love for every school to have separate practice fields for their teams, but the reality is they can’t, so we do the best we can with what we’ve got.”