Schools Chief Discusses Challenges, Priorities for New Year
First of a three-part series with Dr. LeRoy Seitz on back-to-school 2012.
Dr. LeRoy Seitz remains a lightning rod for Parsippany.
As the chief executive officer of the township's public school district, he is focused on keeping Par-Troy's elementary, middle and high schools running smoothly.
Arguably, he has overseen numerous successes during his tenure here. Most recently, Parsippany was ranked No. 15 on the CNN/Money Magazine list of Best Places to Live for municipalities with populations between 50,000 and 300,000, a feat fueled by the national reputation of the school system. And NJ Monthly Magazine honored Parsippany High School (No. 86) and Parsippany Hills High School (No. 15) for being among the top-100 high schools in the state.
But all is not rosy.
The superintendent appears to be the prime target of resident outrage over a proposed $11.5 million in athletic facilities improvements for the high schools that many find excessive. Contract negotiations with teachers and staff are not going easily. And controversy over his employment contract continues: Seitz is suing the BOE and the state for breach of contract while the school board has a countersuit against the superintendent for the repayment of an alleged $38,000 in salary overpayments. The matter is slated to come before a judge in September—and what will happen after verdicts appear is unknown.
But the 2012-13 school year begins Sept. 6, so Seitz's attention, he said, is squarely on getting things off to a positive start. Patch sat down with the superintendent Aug. 22 at the Board of Education building for a wide-ranging discussion on matters educational.
In part one, we address the athletic field brouhaha, school maintenance, property taxes and the challenges—and consequences—that come from setting priorities. Parts 2 and 3 will follow Friday and Monday.
Patch: A huge focus for the new year is the proposed athletic facility improvements for the school. You have sent a plan to the Department of Education that is a little more than half of the estimated $11.5 million dollars worth of proposed options. The idea, of course, is that the plan will go before voters in a January referendum. As we saw at recent Board of Education meetings, there appears to be a lot of resident pushback over the project because many do not want increases in their property taxes. Why is it so important for this plan to win approval from citizens? What will it mean for the district if it doesn't?
DR. LeROY SEITZ: If it does not win approval, some things are going to have to be done. ... You have a football program that needs fields. You have a track program that needs tracks. So if we do nothing—if the referendum fails—we'll have to at the very least put a lot of money into the track at the High, into the fields at both schools, in terms of the fencing, bleachers, handicapped access is a concern. So that money's going to have to be found and spent. We have a lot of old buildings, capital projects...
You have that huge boiler project at the Hills coming up...
Yes, a $1.2 million boiler room-water issue at the Hills, and the money's got to come from someplace, and there's not much wiggle room in the operating budget. You have your labor costs, and we're a labor-intensive industry. Then you have your fixed costs: heat, electricity. Those things are always there. There's a certain amount you have to spend on curriculum, because that's mandated by the state. So when you're all said and done, you've got a couple of percent to play with.
Especially when you consider the 2 percent hard [tax levy] cap.
Right. So you have only a couple of percent to play with, or rather, to use your discretionary powers on to decide what the priorities are. Looking around the district, chances are great that resurfacing the track is not going to be the highest priority. Patching it is effective, but not attractive. That's what we'd have to do for a few years. Fencing at the Hills, which looks atrocious, will probably remain there. We'd probably reinstall the black tubing on top to reduce the risk of injury. We'll do some board replacements at both schools on the bleachers and we'll do a band-aid approach for the foreseeable future.
That's what I find so difficult. All of that is just for four home football games. If you put in a multipurpose field, your usage skyrockets 10 times over and all these other students are treated as equally as the football field. I always hear that football teams get treated differently. My experience is that when you put in a multipurpose field, you give everybody equal access, the football team ends up playing less. It's about equity, to me. Are we going to finally treat the other teams, treat women's and men's sports, equally? A football field doesn't, and it sits there.
Ultimately, it's up the residents to decide what they really want and whether equity is really important to them.
To me, there's no question: You put in restrooms. In 2012, restrooms are probably appropriate. But that's the residents' decision. The thing is, if you go to something once a year, perhaps Port-a-Johns are fine, but you have to understand that these multipurpose fields are used every day by a variety of people. And because you, at least at the High, have the opportunity for soccer and field hockey night games, you have parents coming. If you're playing at 3 in the afternoon, chances are the parents won't be there, but at 7 o'clock at night, you've got parents using Port-a-Johns, which is not a good thing. The cost, to me, seems reasonable enough to do the concessions stands, the restrooms and the field rooms for $5 a year [for 10 years]. Other people differ. We're spending $250 a month for the Port-a-Johns... It's about quality of life for the students.
We have old buildings, and the maintenance is pretty good. The auditoriums look good. We did replace the lights and sound systems, so they function very well. We have tile floors, linoleum tile, which ages poorly. We have terrazzo in some of our schools, it looks brand-new every year when we polish it. So the schools are reaonably well-maintained. There's always going to be issues. When somebody says 10 or 12 years from now, we're going to have to replace the field. Well, yeah. And every roof in this district has been replaced a number of times. Boiler rooms have to be replaced. Windows and doors have to be replaced. That's what happens when you run a school district. Same with a home: You don't buy it and then do nothing with it for the next 30 years.
Of course we've only heard [complaints] from a limited number of people who [weren't] happy with the scope of the proposal. I think part of the problem was the mayor's plan, which we've never seen but heard conceptually that it was $4.5-$5.5 million, we've never seen what it comprised. I can't compare apples to apples. Comparing our cost to another field is ridiculous because every field is different. And if you're familiar with the Hills, you know it's built on a rock, so that's problematic. And two, when somebody cited [getting donations] from a group or raising funds or doing it through a club, they're snot subjected to the same regulations we are. We have to go with prevailing wages. That makes a huge difference.
I've heard some suggest corporate sponsorships. Is that allowed?
Yes, it is. But if you can find a company willing to sponsor it, let me know. I've been looking for 15 years. The closest I was ever able to get was when I was in Woodbridge. We were able to get a vendor who maintained all of our vending machines, soda machines, juice machines, whatever. Because of that, they gave us a revenue stream—maybe 10 cents per can—that guaranteed a certain amount of income. It was substantial; Woodbridge is a big district. That was the closest we ever got to a sponsorship. We're not Rutgers, and een Rutgers doesn't get a lot of money [from corporate sponsors]. A corporation donating to a public school is largely a fantasy because they service so many public schools. And their employees come from all the surrounding public schools. People buy naming rights; I don't see a major corporation buying naming rights for a public school football field. They just don't do it. You might get a scoreboard. But if somebody can find a corporate sponsor or someone who wants to pay for a multipurpose athletic complex, great. But they don't do it. They just don't do it.
Are any pieces of the plan expendable, in your opinion?
Well, it depends on your perspective. If you think Port-a-Johns are appropriate, then the restrooms [are expendable]. ... It's hard for me to say. If they simply want a filled football field, and to re-do the track, then that's what they want. My charge was to come back to the board with all of these items addressed. It's spelled out right in the resolution that the board passed unanimously. That's what we did. [It was up to the board] to decide this short-term versus long-term issue. Whatever happens, we're going to live with it for a long time, just like we've lived with the current fields for a long time—30, 40 years or longer. The lights at the High... they were a donation that you wouldn't get away with today, because of the codes. They don't provide adequate lighting for football. Well, someone might say, "I don't think we need lights." OK, that's fine, so you find lights expendable. I know a high school in 2012 with a comprehensive sports and band program needs lights. It's about bringing this part of the school program into the 21st century.
It's a wonderful honor for this town to be named one of the best small cities in the country, but if you don't address these fields properly, that's a quality of life issue that will have an impact. I know from personal experience that the quality of the facilities has an impact on student behavior and school spirit. If kids come in and see that things are beat up, they beat them up. If they see that things are well-maintained, they leave them alone. That's in general, of course, there is always that exception, and we'll always have that. But for most kids, they know . People have a sense of how much you respect them by what you provide them. If we were providing the Taj Mahal, that would be different. But what we [proposed] was pretty much what our sister schools in our conference have.
What about the locker rooms? At the special Board of Education meeting, there was a mother and daughter who spoke of how horrible they were.
Those locker rooms are old and the lighting is not great, so they look dingy. But they are spotless and will remain clean until they start being used. Now, when you start bringing in gym classes all day long from the outside and, well, let's face it, [when] wrestling season starts... You know when it's wrestling season, because the smell is there. It's just what locker rooms are. Could we bring in an architect or an engineer to put in new lights or a drop ceiling and a better HVAC system and address that? Sure we could. But is that high on our priority list? Or is our priority making sure that Lake Hiawatha and Lake Parsippany elementary schools are properly pointed? Are the locker rooms more important than the boiler rooms and the roofs? More important than the multipurpose room at Lake Parsippany? There are all these priorities, and we can't do them all at once.
One other thing, since I have your ear: People complain about the condition of the fields and the condition of the district. We have thousands upon thousands of square feet, wings at seven buildings, multiple classrooms. We did not increase our custodial staff [by] one person. A negative person will say you were overstaffed to begin with. OK, say that.
Secondly, we had the budget crunch where we lost 13 [custodial] positions and eliminated our summer help, which we hired to do the grass. Are things going to look worse now than they did three years ago? Absolutely. What a surprise, things aren't what they used to be.
What we need is a more equitable way of funding our schools. My father was from Pennsylvania and he bought his house in 1948. After 25 or 30 years, I remember him telling me he was paying more in property taxes annually than he was for his house. Unfortunately, that's what happens, and it affects those with the least ability to pay. I don't know the solution. If I did, I'd be a hero. It's a system that really needs to be tweaked. We've got to find a way to reduce property taxes for those on fixed incomes.