BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – The grass at schools is so high and the district's mowing team so understaffed, for a moment school officials chewed over the idea of using goats to cut the grass, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.
"Are there any school districts in the country using goats? Can somebody look into that?" asked Brevard County School Board Chair Tina Descovich. "I don’t think it’s that absurd."
The situation has become so desperate, the school district also contemplated using inmate labor, ruled out for security concerns; using students or volunteers, ruled out for liability concerns; and outsouring and bringing on additional workers, ruled out for financial concerns. Zero-scaping and unmanned mowing machines were even explored.
For now, citing scarce workers and a skimpy budget, the school district has decided to do nothing, to "accept the level of service for where it is," said assistant superintendent over facilities Sue Hann.
That means parents will keep seeing higher grass around schools and hearing coaches complain about fields and sometimes having PE indoors.
Currently, there are 23 employees who mow 1,976 acres of school district property. They do everything from edging, tree-pruning, strimming, spraying for bugs, laying playground mulch and maintaining the district's 72 acres of athletic fields and 94 properties.
Matt Nolle, grounds services supervisor, say it's the "hardest job in the district."
"We wind up pushing all our guys hard. They're a tough bunch. They take it in stride," said Nolle. But he says, "You can see it, you can see it in their face. At the end of the summer, they're worn."
The team is severely understaffed and overworked, which has led to unruly-looking campuses, damaged football fields and code violations from the county. Nolle said he needs at least 42 workers.
But without a significant increase in funding for the department, Hann told the school board not much will change. Even if the money is available, Hann told board members "there are probably better uses for that money."
"This is the result that we’re going to have again next year," Hann told the board matter-of-factly. "I just want everybody to know, unless we make some dramatic changes."
Too many acres, not enough people
Derek Bissett, an equipment operator with the school district, mows between eight and 12 athletic fields a day. He's responsible for 25 fields in total and has to mow them twice a week to keep them at the ideal 1.5 inches.
"They have to be cut constantly," says Nolle.
The district tries to cut the rest of the grass every 14 days. But with rain, employees calling out sick and equipment breakdowns, the time between cuts is often longer. The higher the grass, the harder to cut, leading to more breakdowns and repairs.
Board member Matt Susin said the conditions have kept some schools from having P.E. outside or hosting games on their home fields.
"The grass is up to their knees," said Susin. "The kids can't go out there. It's not safe."
Outside of athletic fields, Hann admits that concerns over grass height are mostly aesthetic. Nolle and his team hear a lot of complaints about campuses' appearance.
"A lot of the community doesn't understand how short-staffed we are" he said.
Coaches and athletic directors have high expectations, too.
"They want to see NFL-level fields and we're not capable of delivering that level of service," said Nolle.
Susin said he's talked to several coaches who have asked for a machine to mow the grass and fields themselves. He'd like the district to look into outsourcing field maintenance altogether.
"The bottom line is we’ve got to do better. We can't keep doing what we’re doing," said Susin. "It's not fair to our current maintenance staff either. These guys are hardly getting paid enough to get by and they're working twice as hard."
Susin and Nolle long for the days when each school had an outdoors custodian who handled the mowing, until 2013 when landscaping services were centralized under the district. That year three schools were closed and $25 million slashed from the budget, increasing class sizes and eliminating bus routes, academic programs, staff positions and extracurriculars.
Moving mowing responsibility from individual schools was projected to save the district $350,000. But school officials say the conditions of school grounds has suffered. Hann says the district doesn't have the money or resources to return to the old model.
"There was this high hope it would work, and it really hasn't," said Nolle. "I don't think things can get any worse than they are right now."
No to goats and inmates
To get the school district to an ideal level of service would cost $1.5 million annually, Hann said. Right now, the district spends $830,000 on employees, equipment and repairs.
The district's fleet of batwings, turf mowers and standing mowers is still relatively young, but eventually will need replacing. A large batwing mower costs the district upwards of $65,000.
Workers are paid about $15 an hour, or $31,000 a year. They work long hours, some from 5:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. in light rain and hot sun. Nolle says he struggles with employee turnover.
"They work till they burn out," he said.
The district has all but ruled out keeping goats to eat the grass, although some board members were open to the idea. There are concerns over cleanup and caring for the animals, as well as potential legal ramifications. A university in Michigan was sued for using goats instead of people to cut the grass. The union that filed the lawsuit claimed the goats were taking jobs away from human workers.
Using inmate labor is not an option either. Staff said the sheriff's office's inmate services are booked.
Using students, parents or volunteers came with its own set of challenges surrounding how reliable they would be and the liability if someone gets hurt.
The district has more realistically researched contracting out its mowing services, offering more overtime to current workers and reimplementing outdoor custodial positions to middle schools and high schools. School board members also want to look into partnering with local businesses to mow schools in exchange for free advertising.
But for now, the district has resigned itself to put up with the long grass.
"We’ll carry on with trying to do a little better, but I just want to be clear that it's not going to be noticeable out in the field," Hann said. "It might be noticeable at a particular school where we have a business partner, but district-wide it's still going to be a problem."