Amid Lawsuit, Council Committee Recommends Churchill Turf Field
Committee shies away from legal challenges
The Churchill Bulldogs prepare to take the field at Shepherd Stadium in Potomac before a 2012 game against Seneca Valley.
Winston Churchill High School
Update - Tuesday - 11:15 a.m. - The full County Council did not vote on appropriating funds for the design of the Winston Churchill field Tuesday morning. County Council President Craig Rice said the matter will be addressed in the fall.
Original Report - Monday
Despite a lawsuit challenging Montgomery County artificial turf field use rights, the County Council Education Committee Monday recommended appropriating funds to design a new turf field at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac.
Council members avoided discussing the details of the lawsuit.
Montgomery Soccer Inc. (MSI), the largest youth sports organization in the state, is suing the Montgomery Board of Education over the process it used to award the use of turf fields at Richard Montgomery, Gaithersburg and Winston Churchill high schools.
“That’s not the issue before the council,” said council member Phil Andrews. “We have to answer whether a turf field is appropriate at Winston Churchill High School. It shouldn’t hold up our decision about appropriating funds.”
“It seems kind of backwards for us to say, ‘Don’t build that field because I didn’t get access to it,’” said council President Craig Rice. “Whatever the outcome, we want to make sure that benefit is there for our children.”
MSI claims in its lawsuit the board unfairly awarded the $1 million-plus rights to use the artificial turf field at Richard Montgomery in Rockville and the yet-to-be built field at Churchill to youth sports organizations that serve less of the county’s population than MSI.
“We can allow small numbers of athletically elite kids play on the fields over and over or we can take the masses and let the kids play on them occasionally,” said MSI Executive Director Doug Schuessler in an interview Thursday. “We’ve got 900 teams worth of kids that are waiting to be served by our county and it’s just not happening. The quality fields in the down county have been dedicated to the wealthiest clubs.”
The Board of Education approved a resolution in June that grants 10 years of use at the field at Richard Montgomery to Bethesda Soccer Club and 10 years of use at the field at Churchill to Potomac Soccer Association, Bethesda Lacrosse Association and the school’s booster club.
MSI received rights to the Gaithersburg field, but contends it also should have won bids for at least Richard Montgomery. MSI also claims in its suit that school officials said they had received an “unbeatable” bid for the field at Churchill.and weren’t open to an offer from MSI.
On Monday, the council’s Education Committee steered away from the use debate and instead recommended approval of funding for the design of the turf field at Churchill.
Schuessler said that move is a misstep that harms MSI’s 15,000 participants.
“These issues are intrinsically linked,” he said. “You can’t separate the appropriation from the public policy objective. The broad spectrum of kids are not being well-served.”
Montgomery schools often team up with private youth sports organizations to fund artificial turf stadium construction, which presents expensive up-front cost, said MCPS Facilities Director James Song in testimony before the Education Committee.
Schools get the first crack at the fields for physical education classes, sports competitions and practices, taking up nearly 1,000 hours a year on the fields, he said. Partners take up another 1,000 hours and provide immediate funding to the county. About 250 hours are left for community use, he said, but turf fields allow high schools to consolidate practice locations and open up other local facilities for community use.
At Churchill, the Board of Education granted field usage to the Bethesda Lacrosse Association, Potomac Soccer Association and the high school’s booster club for $1.3 million. The same amount was bid by Bethesda Soccer Club for the Richard Montgomery field. Both bids were slightly higher than MSI’s bids.
MSI alleges that selection process was “highly irregular” and “rife with … false statements,” according to its complaint filed in Circuit Court. “The Board did not follow its own administrative regulations,” the complaint claims.
Schuessler said MSI’s bid for the Churchill field should have earned a higher score based on the county’s procurement criteria. Its financial offer of $1.08 million was competitive, he said, and MSI’s history of service to the county should give the organization an edge.
A partner’s “vision” and “philosophy,” along with planned use of the facility, account for 30 points on the 100-point submission scoring guidelines, according to the complaint.
Bethesda Lacrosse and Potomac Soccer pledged $1.05 million for the rights to the field. The Winston Churchill booster club promised another $250,000 as part of that plan to cover other costs.
Council member Cherri Branson said those discrepancies lead her to question how school system officials conducted the procurement process.
“I understand why that partnership was chosen for the bid, but I also understand the need for an open, competitive process,” she said. “That could have avoided a lawsuit or a least any hard feelings.”
Rice said the Council is awaiting a review in September that thoroughly examines the county’s procurement procedures. Until then, he said he thinks county officials have done well to weigh the costs and benefits of proposals for a whole host of projects.
“I’d have to go back to all my colleagues before me and believe that they dotted their ‘I’s’and crossed their ‘T’s,’” he said.
Song sought to leave no doubt Montgomery’s schools are following that track record.
“I want you to know we’re doing our part to get the best product at the best price we can,” he told legislators.
Schuessler remained skeptical of that assertion. He said Song and other county officials declined to even give weight to other offers for the Churchill field and deceived them about the bidding process at Richard Montgomery and Gaithersburg.
“I don’t think the County Council has been properly informed,” he said.