The received a hearty round of applause at its Thursday night meeting when it accomplished what many thought impossible: By unanimous vote, the members approved a measure that could lead to athletic improvements at Parsippany and Parsippany Hills high schools, but would not call for the board to relinquish control over its fields, would not require the use of Open Space Trust Fund dollars and might not require homeowners to pay more in taxes.
In other words, the so-called Fields of Dreams still may become reality, but in a different way than was proposed by .
The school board meeting began with an hour-long closed session. Upon the board's return, Board President Frank Calabria opened the floor to unfinished business, and member Anthony Mancuso began to speak.
"This issue of the fields has been going on for quite a while," he said. "I've watched as people have come and spoken for and against the town's proposal to the board on upgrading our facilities. To date, I have not seen any written proposals or plans from the town.
"In an effort to address many issues I have seen come before the board—51 percent, open space funding, the perpetuity of the property—I would like to make the following motion."
The former board president then presented an alternative to the idea that unleashed months of contentious debate, vitriolic discussion and a seemingly irreparable division throughout Parsippany, a plan that Mancuso told Patch was shared in advance only with President Calabria.
"I move that the Board of Education direct the administration to develop a plan to renovate both football field complexes at our two high schools," he said.
As outlined by Mancuso, his plan would include:
- artificial turf fields with permanent markings and lighting to allow three sports (tentatively football, soccer and field hockey) to play at night,
- new or renovated track ovals in full compliance with NJSIAA regulations and
- new or renovated support facilities including but not limited to concession stands, fencing, electrical and sewer service, restrooms, team rooms, bleachers, sound systems and lighting systems.
These proposals, Mancuso said, would give the board options members can select as the developmental process unfolds.
And the plan as presented would put the final decision in the public's hands.
"Funding for this project will be provided through the referendum process," Mancuso said. "The administration is directed to act immediately on this directive so that the question can be placed before voters as soon as possible with the expectation that the vote will occur in December, the first available referendum date."
The motion included a provision that plans for the field improvements would be shared with the full BOE and appropriate committees to allow all members "multiple opportunities to provide input and feedback" and to give citizens "opportunity for public input."
After Mancuso finished speaking, Vice President Frank Neglia seconded the motion.
The board room went silent for a moment. Calabria then asked for comments.
"I respect the motion and will say, though, that I am somewhat concerned about proceeding with a referendum at this point and asking our community for additional tax dollars when we have been presented with an opportunity to have no additional tax," said member Deborah Orme. "I am still in favor of the proposal using the Open Space Trust Fund.
"Investigating a referendum may be a reasonable move," Orme conceded, though she insisted she still favored the mayor's plan.
Member Fran Orthwein countered that the last time the BOE held a referendum, it was for $47 million.
"We're not talking about a program of that scope or size," she said. "We're taling a max of maybe $5 million. But it's totally under our control. .. We don't give up any rights or control of our property."
Mancuso explained that under his proposal, it still is possible to reduce or eliminate any need for taxpayers to see their tax levy rise. He noted that the township is in a position where it may need to bring the open space tax rate under its current rate of 2 cents per $100 of assessed property value.
"[The rate] could be lowered to offset any increase in property tax that may come from our small referendum," he suggested. "There is the possibility that the town could work with us to lower those funds... so it won't cost the taxpayers anything additional."
BOE member Michael Strumolo reiterated an idea he had shared with Patch Tuesday morning.
"I like the idea, but I'm not sure I want to see this all at once," he said. "I want to see [the improvements] done in sections rather than this being one large pill to swallow.
Maybe we could have an urgency list of what has to be done immediately."
"I think that would be decided by the committees," suggested member Sharif Shamsudin. "The motion is a good motion."
Orme said she was concerned for the big picture if the referendum did not pass and the board was faced with having to address concerns regarding the fields through its budget.
"We should deal with it as it happens," Shamsudin replied.
At Strumolo's request, Superintendent LeRoy Seitz shared his thoughts.
"It's prudent for the board to pursue this," he said, noting that the state would have to approve the idea and that the county clerk would have to be informed. "We're not making a final decision, just asking for options so we can meet the needs of students now and in the future and see if it is acceptable to people who participate in the referendum."
Member Gary Martin thanked Mayor Barberio "for trying to help our children."
"This board has been split, and this has brought us closer," he said. "We're working as a team."
President Calabria agreed.
"Everyone deserves an awful lot of credit," he said. "There has been a lot of emotion over this. The board is taking a bold step here."
The capacity crowd that attended the meeting expecting fireworks was subdued and largely pacified.
Many took to the microphone to commend Mayor Barberio and the Town Council for working to bring something positive to Parsippany and to the board for listening to the public's concerns and giving residents ultimate control—via the proposed referendum—to decide whether to proceed after getting all the facts.
"I'm speechless," said resident Mary Purzycki, a vocal opponent of the mayor's turf plan. "It makes sense to me, believe it or not."
Citizen Julia Peterson thanked the board for the proposal.
"I pledge to help you support this referendum," she said.
Township Council President Brian Stanton, who serves as the council's Board of Education liaison, said he was pleased with the outcome and thanked Mancuso "for his hard work."
"This is what we wanted all along," he said. "The mayor, the Township Council and the Board of Education working together for the benefit of the kids."
Finally, the motion was up for a vote, and the entire school board voted in favor.
Afterward, as members and residents congratulated Mancuso and each other, Board President Calabria expressed jubilation.
"I knew this board could come together."
Patch awaits a response from its request for comment from Mayor Barberio.