Town residents gathered Thursday for a special session of the Parsippany Board of Education for a chance to brainstorm as a community to find ways in which to finance improvements to athletic facilities at Parsippany and Parsippany Hills high schools.
For this informal meeting, consisting primarily of public comment, residents came to a microphone to share their views.
Some called for better maintenance, some called for fundraising with corporations, some suggested corralling volunteers to take on some of the work. Still others reminded the board that playing fields at the elementary and middle schools need help as well.
Most thanked the board for the chance to talk and to be heard.
"This meeting is what we wanted, and I appreciate your asking us to come here and listening to our input," said resident Michael Espejo. "Now we have to look at what's safe vs. what everybody wants on their wish list."
Resident Bruce Bonin noted that in earlier debates, there was a divided community, but now, he sensed a change.
"I think everybody is pretty much on the same side of this argument at this point," he said. "Everybody here has a passion for the town and wants the fields and tracks to be improved."
Resident Julia Peterson asked for "reasonable maintenance" of grass surfaces beyond the high school football fields.
"No matter how good a turf field is, everyone can't be on it at one time," she said.
Pat Petaccia, an advocate for watching how taxpayer dollars are spent, recommended asking the town's residents to volunteer.
"We have people who can volunteer, cutting limbs down, whatever," she said. "There have been people who asked to volunteer and were told no due to liability. We're grown people. We can get a waiver of liability.
"Let people help, if they want to."
Resident Rick Nogueira proposed creating a website for the effort. He described a site "where ideas can be shared in an open forum where people have to register."
Bruce Bonin mentioned his youthful experience of helping to construct Paradise Field and then getting to play on it.
"I think kids would be thrilled to be involved and have their parents involved in doing some of the [demolition work while leaving the actual construction to experts and professionals].
"Can't we do fund drives?" Bonin asked. "Can't we contact alumni? They have to be pretty darn affluent at this point in their lives. If they got a call from a kid [asking for donations] somebody might hit a jackpot. Some might hang up on you, but some might thing its the best thing ever."
He also suggested that sports parents who fall into the trap of buying new equipment that "isn't absolutely necessary" instead donate the money toward field improvement.
A general consensus was that the board should consider dealing first with the most urgent needs.
Resident Beth Bluj said that at this point, no one expects the full package of items proposed by the board and rejected by voters during the Jan. 22 fields referrendum.
"I'm not looking for miracles," said the longtime fields improvement advocate. "This year in the budget, you need to focus on the track at the High and the fields at the Hills. [It's important to] figure out a way to bring in topsoil, true seeding and have them taken care of it the way they should."
Fields of Dreams committee chair Michael Pietrowicz of Little Vikings Football sent extensive documents to the school board.
"I believe there is general recognition that something has to be done," he said, adding that the issue here is not about recreation leagues. "Little Viking Football has no interest in playing at the Hills. All of our stuff is at Jannarone. This is not about rec football, it's about the athletes at the school [in all sports]. There are no gym classes at these fields. And the community uses the tracks; this is a community asset. This is about improving things for everyone's use."
He suggested dealing with issues that he believes makes the fields unsafe.
"It's too monumental to take on all at once, we've tried it three or four times and got caught up in dreams and wishes and dollars," Pietrowicz said. "First thing: You have to create a capital replacement plan, perhaps a five-year plan based on risk and need and safety."
He suggested formulating a solid plan and taking it to wealthy individuals and corporations.
"I don't think you can go to a corporation and say we need money, but if you say here's our plan...," Pietrowicz said. "If they see the board and the people behind it, you'll probably have a more receptive corporate group or individual to help improve these fields."
Resident Valerie Workman agreed, saying she doesn't believe the board has done enough to attract corporate interest.
Workman described herself as a sports mom who "spends half my life on Parsippany fields" and the rest "in corporate America."
"Every Parsippany-based corporation made money," she said. "There's money there. How you [get their attention]: tax breaks, publicity, what the community is doing. What if you put together a team to reach out to every Parsippany CEO and say, 'Can you help?'
"It may not necessarily be money, it may be better pricing, any number of things," Workman continued. "But there's a lot of money on the table, and many would be available to help. ... Create a special [nonprofit] 501(c)3 specially for the purpose of raising money and people can donate to that."
Pietrowicz also suggested turning to the Morris County Improvement Authority, foundations and leveraging low interest rates, reiterating that a solid plan must be in place first.
Board member Anthony DeIntinis agreed, as did some of his colleagues.
"The money's there," he said. "We just have to do more to go after it and be willing to go, hat in hand, to ask for help."
Member Michael Strumolo suggested meeting with town officials and engineers to determine what can be done jointly and dealt with immediately.
Superintendent of Schools LeRoy Seitz finished the night by giving attendees a reality check.
"Choices will have to be made," he said, reminding everyone that the budget, which has a state-mandated 2 percent cap, is stretched and finite—and even if money is found, priorities must be set.
"What's more important?" Seitz asked. "Do we put money into securing buildings? Do we need the money for maintaining class size or repairing fences?
"What do you choose?"
Seitz went on to thank attendees for their energy and enthusiasm, which he said will go a long way toward achieving field improvements over the long term.
"I see so much energy in Mike Pietrowicz," Seitz said, offering an example. "We need to use him. We need to use the energy and skills of everyone. Just remember this is a long-term process."
Board President Susy Golderer echoed the superintendent's thanks and announced that an ad hoc committee will be formed consisting of board members and "six or seven members of the public." She said the committee could sift through the various ideas suggested and do any necessary legwork.
"There are so many ideas, that [improving the fields] is something we can actually do," she said.
"If the community comes together, this can really happen."
Golderer warned the audience that the job would require long hours and commitment.
"You're vital to making this happen," she said. "We can make it happen, but only if we [as a community] want to make it happen."
The president said she would like to have a committee in place by next week.
"Let's get this started," she continued. "This is Parsippany. Superintendents and teachers come and go. But we live here. This is our town. These are our schools and our children. We have to make the effort. It's important for us to take responsibility."
Anyone interested in volunteering to serve on the ad hoc committee is encouraged to call Joni Benos at 973-263-7200 as soon as possible.