School District's Fields Plan Creates More of a Stir
Superintendent says the BOE proposal is not the Fields of Dreams, but debate remains similar.
Superintendent of Schools LeRoy Seitz outlined the basics of the district's plan for creating multipurpose athletic complexes for the high schools that he said could serve students and the community for 25 years or more.
Voters ultimately get to decide the matter. The BOE plan is to put the proposal up for a referendum on Jan. 22.
The district's idea encompasses installing at each school:
- artificial turf fields that could be used for many more activities than football and soccer
- new fencing to surround the fields
- a water cooling system for the turf fields
- eight-lane track ovals
- modernized lights
- state-mandated water and sewer systems
- concession stands
- American Disabilities Act-compliant bleachers
- "bare-bones" dressing rooms for home and visiting teams
- sound systems.
"This is not the Fields of Dreams," said Seitz, referring to the plan backed by Mayor James Barberio and sports groups earlier this year. Discussions of the FOD plan were heated and divisive, and the proposal, which called for the school board to cede control of its athletic fields to the town, ultimately was rejected by the BOE.
While the estimated cost of Barberio's plan was about $4.5 million that would have come from the town's Open Space Trust Fund, Seitz said the district plan put together by architecture firm Parette Somjen would be a projected $11.5 million to be financed through a tax increase of about $54 per year for 10 years for the average homeowner.
Using calculations provided by the district's bond counsel, Capital Financial Advisors, and township officials, the superintendent said the cost would break down to about $1 per week or 15 cents per day.
Seitz explained the investment would be worthwhile as the improvements would serve the township for a minimum of 25 years. He said the plan would benefit school physical education programs, bands, interscholastic sports teams, recreational groups and the entire community.
He also argued that the improvements would bring Parsippany schools in line with what is happening for many, if not most, school systems across New Jersey.
One example he gave centered on concession stands.
"They would provide fundraising opportunities for students and booster groups," Seitz said, adding that with improved track ovals, Parsippany's two high schools could be eligible to host league, regional and state meets and take advantage of a huge opportunity. "Concessions stands make a ton of money."
Board member Susy Golderer bemoaned the project's estimated cost.
"It's a shame we have let our properties deteriorate so that we have to spend $11 million," she said.
Golderer asked whether it would be possible to do a less expensive project by implementing only a few of the to-do items on the list. She also suggested creating one complex for use by both high schools.
Fellow board member Gary Martin disagreed.
"We need one complex on one side of town and one on the other to make it fair," he said. "We want to do the job right and do the job once, rather than do it piecemeal and spend a heck of a lot more money over 25 years."
Opinions varied widely among the residents who filled the school board meeting room. The debate very much resembled the past Fields of Dreams public discussions, with sports parents pitted against those who railed against tax increases and against people whose homes are closest to the high schools.
Hank Heller said a need for a cooling system for the turf fields proved to him that turf fields were inherently more dangerous for youth than natural grass fields.
Heller expressed outrage over the projected cost.
"Citizens of Parsippany can not afford the opulent proposal put here," he said. "To build two Taj Mahals [in this] economy is shameful and wrong."
Mary Purzycki offered her concerns over having the fields used by townspeople other than students.
"This is a beautiful plan, like Giants Stadium in two areas," she said. "It would be beneficial for the whole student body. ... It should be about the students."
Track and field parent Maurice Saunders spoke in favor of the plan.
"Our students need to excel in the classroom and on the athletic fields," he said. "If we don't do it now, we're going to come back five years from now, 10 years from now. Something has to be done."
Bob Venezia said the plan was filled with unnecessary items.
"You're asking voters to voluntarily raise their taxes," he complained. "You made part of your case. Additional items—lights, bathrooms, locker rooms, concession stands, a track at Parsippany Hills... these are expensive non-essential wish-list items.
"You don't have to have an eight-lane track. Six is fine," he continued. "The extras have nothing to do with improving playing conditions. Taxpayers are going to be very reluctant to pay for it. Include just the core elements: two fields and a track at Parsippany [High]. Add the other items out of your own budget."
Michael Espejo, who lives near Parsippany Hills High, brought his criticisms of the old Fields of Dreams plan to the BOE proposal.
"I thought the board would be more sensitive to [the schools'] neighbors," he said, echoing the notion that an eight-lane track is not needed. "I don't know why it's necessary to [have a track that would allow the school to host a] state track meet. Is it an ego thing?
"You're infringing on our neighborhood," he said. "We don't want our neighborhoods turned into a complex year-round until 9 p.m. When you get to the lights, that is an issue."
Danny Ilic, of the Par-Troy Wrestling Club, spoke in favor.
"The fields and facilities are an embarrassment," he asserted, defending the need for locker room and for restroom facilities, which he said are particularly needed for female students.
Soccer dad George Blair pointed out that the proposed improvements are not extravagant and are standard fare for many schools in New Jersey.
"What makes Parsippany so much different from Summit or Millburn?" he asked. "Why can't we have a field where our kids can prevail? Why do they have to play on a field not comparable to Summit or Woodbridge? Why can't we give our girls the same opportunity other towns have?
"Once you start having winning programs, your entire community comes together," he said, adding that the proposed improvements would make Parsippany kids competitive. "Build them a nice field, and these girls will win!"
Pat Petaccia griped that the $30,000 cost of a special election was too high.
"Hold off until next November [in 2013]," she said. "There's no rush."
As for the $11 million cost, she said she would rather see that amount spent on iPads for classrooms.
Superintendent Seitz argued that a piecemeal and patch approach would be more expensive in the long run and would negatively affect student-athlete performance and school spirit.
He also pointed out that the project is not close to being a "Taj Mahal."
Seitz said that the items on the improvements list will be bare-bones and nothing fancy. As an example, he noted that the proposed locker room facilities will be a small room with a cement floor, benches and hooks on the walls. Bathroom facilities will feature only two or three stalls, he said.
And the superintendent insisted that everything on the list is needed.
"Without these improvements, the bleachers will need extensive reoairs," he said. "The tracks will not be in comliance with the ADA and the High's track will need to be replaced. The fields will be restricted to football.
"Our interscholastic sports teams will be less competitive," he warned. "More and more schools are playing on artificial turfing surface. It changes the game."
Seitz pointed out what he called the "cost of doing nothing."
"If this plan is not funded through the referendum, it will negatively impact future annual budgets," he said. "That impact will be significant due to the hard 2 percent cap that does not permit waivers for capital projects."
And he cautioned that there would be additional election costs if multiple referendums are needed over time.
The time table for the project, Seitz said, means that by the next BOE meeting date, Aug. 23, the board must decide whether to authorize the district to file for the referendum. By the 24th, the proposal must be submitted to the Parsippany Planning Board for review.
If it is decided to move forward with a referendum, the vote, by statute, would have to take place Jan. 22, 2013, Seitz said.