Since December, when the Fields of Dreams high school artificial turf proposal was unveiled publicly, Parsippany has been awash in controversy. Questions have arisen over , and the .
There is another question some are asking.
If the football fields at and are unsafe, as many FOD supporters claim and as Superintendent of Schools LeRoy Seitz disputed at a March 29 BOE meeting, who or what is to blame if a legitimate need exists to install artificial turf and other athletic improvements?
Some say a shared services agreement between the town and the —which expired at the end of 2010—puts the responsibility in the lap of the municipality.
Others say the school board, which currently owns the fields, bears responsibility for the conditions of the football fields, fences and track ovals.
For the FOD proposal to go through as planned, a conservation easement would have to be put into place to allow the town an ownership interest in the properties, which would give it 51 percent of control over and use of the fields.
If there is blame to apportion, it appears choosing who or what is responsible is determined by the person answering the question.
Does the BOE Bear Responsibility?
At a March 20 Township Council meeting, Mayor James Barberio was very clear and very specific in leveling blame at former BOE member Robert Crawford, an outspoken critic of the school board ceding control to the town so that the municipality may use Open Space Trust Fund monies to finance the turf project.
"In 2008 and 2009, you were chair of the [school board's] Buildings and Grounds [and Safety] Committee, and in 2010 and 2011," the mayor said publicly to Crawford.
"You never brought anything to the Board of Education. You fumbled. Now I'm picking up the ball. You talk about leadership. You didn't show it on the Board of Education."
Crawford said the charges are untrue.
"When I chaired the BGSC, I did so in partnership with two other board members under the guidance of the business administrator," he said. "As a member of the BGSC, I had one vote and as a member of the full board, I had one vote and so had neither the power nor the authority to make any unilateral decisions.
"The mayor's recent and repeated charges that I, as chair of the BGSC, had sole responsibility for the conditions of the district's buildings and grounds (including the fields, fences and tracks) suggests just how ignorant he truly is when it comes to understanding how the BOE functions."
Crawford said that when he was chairman of the committee, the conditions of the fields, fences and tracks were not considered to be a priority by then-Business Adminstrator Marlene Wendolowski.
"The committee's job was to review the list of capital improvement projects (which numbered close to 100) to determine which capital projects should be recommended to the full board for its vote and for inclusion in the upcoming budget," he explained.
"The committee's discussions and decision-making processes were guided by input from the business administrator who, given her knowledge, was responsible for ensuring the efficient management of the district's operations and who prioritized for the committee which capital improvements needed to be made to ensure the safety and efficient operations of the school district."
Projects that received priority, according to Crawford, "tended to involve work on boilers, generators and roofs," which allowed the BOE to recoup 40 percent of what it paid out for the work by the state.
"It's also important to remember that when I served as chair of the BGSC the district was operating under very tight financial constraints," he added, pointing out a loss of state aid that resulted in cutbacks in academic programs including art, music and language classes.
"As I recall, the conditions of the football fields, the tracks and the fences were never identified as a priority item by the business administrator or the superintendent [and] the BGSC [was never] advised by the board's Sports Committee, which liaised with booster clubs, had any concerns about the quality of the fields, tracks or fences."
Crawford said no member of the public complained about field conditions, either.
Former Colleagues Blame Crawford
BOE Vice President Frank Neglia, who sat on the committee with Crawford, offered another view.
"In my opinion, Bob has done his best to make a mockery of the Board of Education," he said.
According to Neglia, about $500,000 was cut in 2010 from the maintenance budget under Crawford's supervision in an effort to keep any tax levy for residents beneath the state-mandated 2 percent cap.
"I do recall Bob was quite clear in supporting the cutting the funds, despite the need for maintenance and upgrades," Neglia said.
The matter surrounding slashing approximately $500,000 does not appear to have been discussed during a regular board meeting as the item does not show up in minutes from any BOE public session between 2009-2011. Committee meetings do not have published minutes.
"Regarding some of our B&G meetings, I recall Bob at times being in favor of a project at the committee meeting then when we would bring it to the full board, he'd speak against it, [for instance, a] paving project," the vice president said. "Bob also would complain about the condition at Parsippany High, especially the tennis courts and track. I recall him stating at one point that the conditions there were 'embarrassing.' He always seemed to focus only on Parsippany High though."
Crawford admitted that he has a personal interest in PHS, where his children attend.
"Bob had a political motivation," Neglia said. "All along I have felt he has been using the media as a means of gaining notoriety in an effort to make himself look clean and deny responsibility, as well as to get his name out there to the public."
Former school board member Andrew Choffo offered similar thoughts.
"It was our first budget under the 2 percent cap," he said. "We were trying to be fiscally conservative across the board to show taxpayers that we could be fiscally conservative while maintaining academic and co-curricular programs people wanted in our schools."
According to Choffo, Crawford often commented on the state of lighting at the Hills and the tennis courts at Parsippany High.
"He has shown himself to be intimately familiar with buildings and grounds," Choffo said. "Bob had the responsibility to put before the board choices to allow the board to understand the true condition of the fields so that the full board could decide how to allocate funds.
"Bob had the ability to champion an issue. For him to say he had one vote of three [on the committee], seems disingenuous. As chair, you have the ability to steer the direction of the committee. For the 2011-12 budget, we could have chosen to allocate the additional money to Buildings and Grounds for the fields. ... It wasn't in his best interest or worth his time to focus on those fields beyond what he did."
Other Former Colleagues Reject Blaming BOE and Crawford
Board member Michael Strumolo, who said he did not recall any half-million-dollar cut from Buildings and Grounds, defended Crawford.
"Bob is right," he said. "It was up to Marlene Wendolowski and Seitz to tell us about priorities that needed to be taken care of."
Dr. Frank Calabria, the BOE's president, said pointing fingers at Crawford is unfair.
"Bob Crawford is one board member, not nine," he said. "Bob may be a pain in the neck in a lot of ways, but he is a caring, bright, articulate person and very much always was for youngsters and in the best interest of youngsters."
According to Calabria, with reduced state aid, the board had difficult budget choices to make.
"We had to decide: Do we do something academically or for areas of facility? For many, it was academics. So you hold back. That's what happened," he explained. "When you lose your state aid, school boards are in a place where budgets sometimes limit what you can do. We're lucky that we [had] a board member ... focused on that. With budgets the way they are and the times being what they are, you have to make hard decisions."
Is Town Hall Responsible?
Then there is the matter of an agreement that until 2010 put the municipality in charge of maintaining the high school football fields.
According to Seitz, the pact only addressed mowing, fertilizing and reseeding the grass fields. The agreement did not make the town responsible for repairing or renovating the fields.
Barberio said he terminated the shared services agreement when it expired in late 2010 in order to bring his municipal budget under its state-mandated 2 percent cap.
Under that pact, which is available for view with this article and on the website of anti-FOD group Parsippany Unite, the school board reimbursed the town for 40 percent of what was paid for general maintenance of the school fields—which included those used for football.
The arrangement, made official in 1962, allowed town residents to make use of school-owned facilities such as the tennis courts and athletic fields.
Among the duties stipulated were edging, removing unwanted grass from dirt infield sections of baseball fields, weekly mowing and adding required markers and lines to fields on an as-needed basis.
"The BOE was not happy about the termination of the agreement and tried to persuade Mayor Barberio to renew it in everyone's best interests, but his primary interest was to protect his political interests by ignoring the big picture," Crawford suggested. "The irony of course is that Mayor Barberio, because it now serves his political interests, is playing the shared services card."
A shared services agreement is still in effect for the high school tennis courts. Under this pact, the BOE owns the courts and the land they cover, but the town has responsibility for maintaining them.