The Iberville Parish School Board’s decision Tuesday to spend $1.5 million for artificial turf and infrastructure upgrades at the Plaquemine High School stadium was met with passionate debate from several board members who said the money would be best spent elsewhere.

Board member Pam George said she couldn’t support spending that kind of money on athletics when there are schools that don’t even have working doors on bathroom stalls. Board member Darlene Ourso said the money should be allocated toward academic achievement and salary increases for support staff.

Both women made up the dissenting minority in the board’s 7-2 vote approving the football field expenditure.

The vote was met with sighs of relief from parents, Plaquemine High officials and several coaches from community athletic teams who said the artificial turf will give more teams around-the-clock access to a field used by kids throughout the parish.

“I don’t want to have to send kids (to other schools) to try and play games or practice,” Chandler Smith, principal of Plaquemine High, told the board. “I want to be able to house those kids there and take on that responsibility.”

School district officials said heavy rains often prevent district teams and community leagues from using the school’s field. And the field’s heavy use also keeps maintenance costs high, they said.

“This would be an almost maintenance-free deal,” Marvin Price, a volunteer coach of a community league, said at Tuesday’s meeting. “There’ll be no recovery time needed.”

According to an invoice for the project, the board will spend $850,000 to install the turf and make drainage upgrades on the field.

Another $5,500 has been allocated for 25-second clocks; $25,000 on a new scoreboard and structure; $150,000 for something identified on the invoice only as “new field events”; $4,000 on goal posts; $25,000 on a new handicap ramp; and $175,000 on softball field lighting.

An additional $327,143 has been set aside for professional service fees and contingency funds.

The district hopes to have the improvements completed by August.

“I understand the need, but it’s hard for me to sit here and say I can support this,” George said, “when we have bathroom doors tied together with Wal-Mart bags.”

Ourso shortly followed with, “My biggest problem with this is the needs we have in the classroom. We should address that first. I wouldn’t have a problem if we were a B school district and all our schools were B’s. But that’s not the case.”

However, district Athletic Coordinator Paul Distefano said extracurricular activities like sports help students achieve academically. He also said the artificial turf makes financial sense.

“Turf generally pays for itself in eight to 10 years,” he said. “There’s no maintenance with turf. You can’t hurt the turf.”

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