Photo illustration by Erik Oeverndiek
There is a new push to put lights on the fields on the five fields in the San Mateo Union High School District which currently do not have them. This is what lights on the field at Hillsdale could look like.
A number of coaches and athletic directors, along with parent groups, are resurrecting the call for field lights at the five high schools in the San Mateo Union High School District that currently do not have them at their facilities.
Aragon, Capuchino, Hillsdale, Mills and San Mateo high schools do not have lights on their fields. Burlingame is the only school in the district with such facilities.
“We are the last school district with less than 50 percent of lights on our fields,” said Jeff Scheller, football coach and athletic director at San Mateo High, who is spearheading the effort. “Our school district is very proud of the stuff they fix up. The thing facilities are missing are lights.”
Scheller, along with Aragon football coach and athletic director Steve Sell and Hillsdale football coach Mike Parodi, are making serious efforts to get the situation remedied. But all three are quick to point out this does not have anything to do with football. In fact, they say the sports most impacted are the soccer teams and spring sports such as lacrosse. Without lights, sports such as soccer are at a disadvantage because they are limited by day-time hours, which are decreased during the winter months. The Aragon football team, for example, usually makes the playoffs and are practicing until late November. That limits the amount of time soccer teams have to practice.
“If you compare the number of hours a soccer program with lights get, how many hours they get to practice prior to their first game, compared to a school like ours, it’s about 10 to 1,” Sell said. “Our schools, prior to the first (soccer) game, might get a total of 10 hours before the first game. Burlingame will have 10 hours a week.”
The issue, however, is not about practice time. The main thrust of the push for lights has to do with classroom time. Game times in the Peninsula Athletic League have been pushed to 4 p.m. in most cases to limit the amount of class time student-athletes have to miss. Without lights, schools have to move start times up to 3 p.m. to ensure both varsity and frosh-soph teams can finish their games before darkness falls. To do that, players have to miss anywhere from one to two periods of class time.
“As an athletic director, it’s frustrating. The league has done everything it can to minimize the amount of time kids miss class,” Sell said.
Said Scheller: “Our kids miss more class time because of not having lights.”
Because the schools are on such small plots of land, there is no place to install more field space. The community would also benefit because of the community’s usage of the facilities after school hours. As it stands, the fields and tracks at the five light-less schools close the track at dusk.
“We can’t expand the amount of field space we have,” Sell said. “Enrollment is increasing, high-density housing is going up. The only way to increase usage of the fields is to expand hours.”
The effort stalled over a decade ago
There was a movement by San Mateo about 12 years to install lights on the field, but that progress kind of died on the vine because the people who were pushing the hardest for the change, all left the school or the district.
“We had tremendous support from (SMUHSD superintendent) Tom Mohr and (then-San Mateo principal) Jackie McAvoy,” said Steven Kryger, currently a teacher and athletic director at Menlo-Atherton, who was a teacher and AD at San Mateo from 2001 to 2008.
Kryger said they had lined up a tremendous amount of money through fundraising, donations and grants for field improvements at San Mateo, with the lighting being the last piece of the puzzle after installing a new artificial turf field and all-weather track.
But when all three key members of the movement moved on to different positions, the drive for lights died.
“We knew this would take a couple of years,” Kryger said. “I think (the effort) lost a little bit of momentum when Tom Mohr left, when Jackie left, I left. Some of the momentum was lost. For a lot of reasons, it kind of lost steam.”
Picking up the baton
Now, however, the effort is back on track and those pushing for lights are slowly chugging away.
Proponents appear to have some board of trustee members on their side for installing lights as well.
“I’m a total proponent of lights,” said Linda Lees Dwyer, president of the board of trustees. “I grew up in the Midwest. I was in the marching band. I’m a huge proponent of school sports and I would like to see the lights. I would like the surrounding community to understand it’s a huge advantage for them. I see them as a great public asset.”
Lees Dwyer did say, however, there hasn’t been a lot of formal talks surrounding the issue and admitted there are other projects the board of trustees would like to do before getting into serious talks about installing lights on district fields.
“The lights would never be on top of the list because of things that need to be done to schools to keep them safe and in good condition,” Lees Dwyer said.
Proponents went before the board of trustees in February and while the board appeared to be agreement that the proposal should be looked at, they wanted more information.
“What we said was we wanted to them to try to engage the surrounding communities to make sure they didn’t oppose it,” Lees Dwyer said. “We would then have to see where we could find the funds.”
Liz McManus, head of the district’s facilities, said the proposal is still in the research mode and money to fund the project still needs to be found.
“A funding stream still hasn’t been identified yet,” McManus said.
A lot of the legwork done
Supporters of the effort have already done a lot of the leg work. All three coaches said they have talked with several representatives of communities surrounding their respective schools and all three said there appears to be a lot of support.
“We’ve met with homeowners associations, with the city of San Mateo. They all sounded extremely supportive,” Parodi said. “We want them to be informed.”
Scheller said San Mateo High had a bit of an unintentional stress test last football season when a football game under portable lights coincided with the opening of the school’s newly renovated performing arts center.
“We got no complaints about anything,” Scheller said. “If [opponents] wanted to stir things up, that would have been a perfect time.”
Kryger said when he was with San Mateo, he experienced the same amount of support from the surrounding community.
“The community was tremendously supportive,” Kryger said. “We took a community group around to different venues (in the county with lighted fields) to the atmosphere and technology improvements. After that night, they were tremendously supportive.”
Parodi said the advent of new lighting technology makes today’s field lights less intrusive to the surrounding community.
“The big misconception is the lights will flood this 12-mile radius,” Parodi said. “The technology is so high-tech now. There’s not going to be too much spillover.”
Parodi has also worked on the numbers to see how much it would cost to renovate all five fields. His rough numbers say it will cost the district approximately $2 million.
Athletics complements academics
But the benefits far outweigh the cost in Parodi’s opinion.
“I may be biased because I’m a sports person, but the changes in kids … who become involved in athletics (is tremendous). It’s fun to see them apply the skills from sports to life. I get fired up when people say sports aren’t important. There are always going to be a handful of people who are against everything. This is not about a now decision, this is something that will be there forever, that will benefit generations to come.”
While there is no imminent decision on installing lights at the five high schools, the prevailing feeling is it will get done in the next few years.
“I think there’s a really good chance it happens within the next five years. I think the district cares about kids missing too much class,” Sell said. “It’s guaranteed to benefit. This is guaranteed to help kids academically, guaranteed to help with school spirit.
“I don’t know how you put a price tag on community and school spirit. Volumes of research will show how important sports are to the development of kids.”