On the last Friday in September, before a capacity crowd, Sauk Centre's football team played on the school's new field -- becoming one of the state's smallest schools to move to artificial turf.

"We do budget cuts every year and it hurts, [and] I'm going to spend how much money on an artificial field?" said school board chair Ann Mitchell, who agonized over her vote, but finally backed the new field as part of a $2 million sports facilities upgrade.

By the end of this year, the FieldTurf company -- which has installed the playing or practice fields for 21 of the National Football League's 32 teams -- will have installed its 60th artificial turf field at colleges and high schools in Minnesota, many at public schools where budget woes for education are a daily fact of life. Many schools, after wincing at the initial costs, are opting for the fields and arguing that the artificial surfaces can better absorb bad weather and allow multiple sports and even gym classes to use them daily without noticeable wear and tear.

The trend is continuing even as leading experts such as John Sorochan, co-director of the Center for Athletic Field Safety at the University of Tennessee, caution that artificial turf has not been shown to be cheaper over time and others say that heavy use of the fields shortens their life span. Brad Fresenburg, a turf-grass specialist at the University of Missouri, said some officials are simply eyeing rival schools and making the purchase to "keep up with the Joneses."

"I always laugh at how [financially] strapped schools can all of a sudden come up with $600,000 to $1 million" for an artificial turf field, said Sorochan, whose field safety center is funded in part by an artificial turf company. He acknowledged there is a "time and a place" for artificial turf fields, especially at schools where multiple sports must share limited space and "you just can't keep grass alive."

But too many schools, Sorochan said, are creating reasons to justify the expense.

Not everyone agrees, of course. "In this day and age, there's critics of everything," said Dan Brooks, the Sauk Centre district's superintendent, in defending the artificial turf decision. "Like it or not, school districts are businesses" competing for students and "you need to be competitive." Even the girls' volleyball team, added one school official, has used the new field for conditioning.

Wear and tear factor

However, Brian Horgan, a turf-grass specialist at the University of Minnesota, said that schools need to realize that the more teams they line up to use the field and justify its expense, the quicker it will have to be replaced. "If the promotional materials are saying 10 years, you will get less than that if you have lots going on on it," he said. "If you look at the cost, it doesn't always play out to the benefit."

Believing that they can justify the expense, few schools and booster clubs are pulling back once they decide they can pay for it.

The University of Minnesota is paying $488,000, not counting prep work, for an artificial field at its new baseball stadium, contending that it may also be able to let high school teams use it. The university is also spending $501,000 to put new artificial turf on its football practice fields, saying the 12 years of use the school got from the original artificial fields exceeded expectations. "Our analysis was that there's a slight cost savings -- not dramatic -- but enough to make it worth your while," said Scott Ellison, the university's associate athletics director.

"If you can get past that sticker shock thing," Ellison said, "for a high school that has multiple sports using one field, it can make all the sense in the world."

FieldTurf marketing specialist J.S. Belanger said that while "some schools have unfortunately had operational budget cuts," the company has continued to push its "documented" cost savings in switching to artificial turf. School budgets that are "used to make decisions on purchasing turf," he added, "are capital budgets [and] not the operational budget used to pay staff."

Many schools have stopped saying an artificial turf field is cheaper than natural grass over the long run, largely because comparisons can yield blurry results.

While FieldTurf says that an artificial field may initially cost more, the company said the field costs just $5,000 a year to maintain, compared with an estimated $52,000 for a natural grass field.

But Mike Richardson, a horticulture and turf specialist at the University of Arkansas, said that companies regularly inflate the cost of maintaining a grass field, and downplay the cost of keeping up an artificial turf field. He said that the cost of an artificial field, plus its annual maintenance over 10 years, totals $800,000 or more. "I challenge you to find one high school athletic program that's spending $80,000 a year" to maintain a grass field, he said.

A popular choice

At Richfield High School, business manager Michael Schwartz said the school still likes its nearly $1.1 million artificial turf field even though FieldTurf workers had to be called back to fix a tear following the first year of use in 2011. The money to install the field, which Schwartz said had an eight-year warranty, became available when the school district sold a surplus building.

Another recent convert was the 650-student Kasson-Mantorville High School, where a $617,000 artificial turf field was installed a year ago. The school, near Rochester, is the only one in a 14-team conference with its own artificial field. "It's busy every night of the week," said Mark Matuska, school superintendent. "We've got our band out there, we have our football teams, our soccer teams.

"Other teams cannot wait to get here to play," he said. Matuska said the school district, which ranks near the bottom in Minnesota in terms of revenue, plans to help pay for the field by renting it out. "We manage our money well -- we have to," he said, defending the school's decision.

Then there is the allure of the field itself. "This time of the year, when everything's starting to turn brown, it's an absolutely beautiful sight to see that crisp, green field turf out there," said Aaron Wilke, the school's activities director.

At Centennial High School in Circle Pines, the head football coach helped lead a group of school boosters who, with the help of a well-heeled alumnus, raised the money to install an $803,000 turf field at the 2,100-student school. While the school district did not put any direct money into the project, it will help back a roughly $400,000 loan for the field taken out by a booster club. "We don't talk about it as our football field," said Brian Hegseth, the school's activities director. The field, completed in August, is used "all day long. It's either phy-ed [classes] or marching band" practice, said Hegseth.

"I did get obsessed with it a little bit," said Mike Diggins, the school's third-year football coach. But he said he and the school's other coaches never saw it as a necessity.

Bob Kirchoff, president of the school's football booster club, said the artificial turf field could host 200 events a year -- compared with 20 annually on a grass field. "We want to be competitive," said Kirchoff. "But we didn't do it to keep up with the Joneses."

Then he added: "We see [inflatable] bubbles going up over turf surfaces to handle winter softball events and baseball preseason workouts, and all kinds of things." An artificial turf field, he said, "does help us get to the next realm of thoughts."

Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673