The collection of an estimated $11.5 million in athletic improvements for Parsippany's high schools is off the table.
Rather than risk the ire of taxpayers and voters, the Board of Education unanimously decided to submit a reduced-option package of items to the state Department of Education for its review. If approved, the board will be able to move forward with plans to draft a referendum and, in January, the board hopes, put the idea before voters.
The package, as proposed by school board member Anthony Mancuso, contains the following options for both Parsippany and Parsippany Hills high schools:
- artificial turf fields
- storm water management systems (mandated by the state)
- new 6-lane track ovals
- new fencing
- modernized lighting.
Member Deborah Orme made a motion to also include restrooms, which also won unanimous passage.
It was clear from the start of the meeting that board members—President Frank Calabria, Vice President Frank Neglia and member Deborah Orme are running for re-election in November—were very aware of strong public opposition to what some characterized as an excessive and expensive plan.
Superintendent of Schools LeRoy Seitz reminded the board that it was voting only for what improvement options, if any, would be submitted to the DOE and that any final decisions would not need to be made until Nov. 23.
After discussion and questions, Mancuso made his motion for the board to submit a reduced list of options to the BOE, offering up a plan that would run an estimated $6.8 million and bore some resemblance to the controversial $4.5 million township turf field proposal the BOE rejected earlier this year.
There are some dissimilarities, however. The price for the Mayor James Barberio-backed plan did not include legally mandated costs for storm water management, Seitz acknowledged, which would bring the two estimates much closer together.
Board member Gary Martin spoke against Mancuso's restraint.
"I agree with having six lanes rather than eight, but bathrooms, water cannon, grandstands… I want all this in there," he said. "Let the people vote. If the people want it, we'll do it. If they don't, we won't.
"The bleachers are garbage; we need new," Martin continued. "We're not doing anything that other schools are doing. The piecemeal approach and not giving
the kids a place to go to the bathroom? Let's do it right. Let's not do things half-assed."
Member Michael Strumolo agreed with Martin.
"My fear is if this doesn't pass, we go back to square one and the kids go back to playing in conditions that none of us on the board want," he said.
"I don't feel comfortable sending an $11.5 million plan to Trenton," Orme said, explaining that it would create a perception in town that the board was throwing its support behind all the items.
She also added that the public should get to weigh in on the issue of adding new restrooms via a second question on the referendum. (In a referendum, architect Greg Somjen of Parette Somjen explained, multiple questions may be offered, however, if any question is rejected, any questions that follow it are rejected.)
Martin practically exploded in response.
"Now we're going to piecemeal this and leave the problem for the future?" he insisted. "We've gotta start here, this is bare bones!"
"We've had several meetings and we have listened to our public and our own hearts and mind," said member Fran Orthwein. "It comes down to what we want and what we can afford. Even cutting back, it's still a lot of money."
Orthwein added that it was wise for the board to put forward a plan that had a chance of being "embraced and supported by the community."
Martin argued that dealing with improvements one by one over a long period of time and patching repairs would grow increasingly expensive in the future. He then elicited some gasps with a suggestion that a new high school building should be constructed.
"What do you want, I'm a big old liberal," he said.
Resident Bob Venezia responded from the audience.
"You didn't say that when you were running for the board," he said. "You promised to keep the taxpayer in mind!"
Member Susy Golderer said that even the scaled-back plan was tough for her to accept.
My personal [limit] was at most $6 million," she said.
"What about existing repairs to bleachers," asked member Sharif Shamsudin. "They're wood and a lot of it is rotten. People might say it's safe, but if you're stepping onto wood rather than metal…"
Seitz sought to reassure Shamsudin that the bleachers may be worn, but that they are safe.
"However, the supervisor of Buildings and Grounds is working on replacing those bleachers at both schools," the superintendent said, adding that $100,000 was budgeted specifically for bleacher repair
Martin officially moved to submit all 11 improvements to the DOE.
"If we put all 11 in, we have a few months to hear how the people feel," he urged."If we pass all 11, we don't have to worry about going back to the state."
Somjen, whose firm handled the research, agreed with Martin.
"I recommend submitting the maximum," he said. "Then, it's easier to get it reviewed from the state in the event of a change that forces you to have to resubmit. It's easier to take things out than to put then in."
Unlike Mancuso, Martin demanded that the board vote on his motion prior to public comment.
President Calabria balked, saying that it would start a bad precedent.
"We've been inviting the public to comment throughout the process," she said. "It would be a disadvantage to this board to move forward on a motion without giving the public an opportunity to weigh in."
Resident Beth Bluj thanked Mancuso for his small-package approach.
"Sending all 11 will only fuel the fire [of public anger]," she said, adding that components such as Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant bleachers should come out of the boards regular operating budget. "I think the people have spoken on what they want: lights, fences, tracks and fields.
"And we want no more delays."
"A lot of towns already have a lot of these bells and whistles," said Venezia to the board. "If these towns did all those things it's because they elected to do it out of their budgets. If we don't, it's because you elected not to do it. You decided that other things were more important than fixing fences and tracks."
Resident Hank Heller put the blame for longtime poor field conditions on Seitz and angrily urged him to "pack his saddlebags and leave."
President Calabria called Heller's comment out of order and asked him to leave the microphone.
The board voted in Mancuso's plan, 9-0. Martin's all-or-nothing idea went down, 6-3. And Orme's plan to add restrooms as a referendum second question was approved, 8 to 1.
In each instance, Golderer voted yes with a caveat that when November comes, she will not support any plan that exceeds a $6 million total cost.