Board of Education votes to take next step toward new high school athletic fields

| 15 Feb 2012 | 09:35

    But some question board’s proposed use of unspent referendum funds SPARTA — The Board of Education voted 6 to 3 last week in favor of a resolution to accept a proposal from the engineering firm of Birdsall Services Group to repair some existing fields, and to proceed with design and permitting work on a new athletic facility to include a multi-sport turf field and possibly a synthetic track on land behind the high school adjacent to Station Park. The repairs to existing fields will be funded from a capital reserve account and this part of the resolution has not seen much opposition. But it is the second part of the resolution that has created controversy with some members of the public because the new facility would be funded with a portion of around $3 million still unencumbered from the high school renovation project approved by public referendum in 2006. Opponents of the project say the unused funds should be returned to the taxpayers, which would be a one-time reimbursement of around $200 for the average household, or the board should allow the voters to have a say in the funds via another referendum. Some citizens have reportedly contacted the Sussex County Superintendent and Business Administrator, asking them to weigh in on the project and urging they seek advice from state officials in Trenton regarding the fields. The Department of Education spokesperson said no project has officially been proposed to state officials; hence the state has issued no official opinion on the project. Morton introduced fields initiative Last week, Superintendent Dr. Thomas Morton said the board planned to vote on the resolution to initiate the first steps toward the fields project, saying “We have some very good school buildings and we’re pleased with our buildings. But our outside facilities are, in many instances, an embarrassment.” He said the existing fields are inappropriate for a community like Sparta and the board would move ahead with a plan to improve them. Morton described the athletic fields that were damaged or lost as a result of the high school renovation, saying there are aerial photographs depicting the way these fields were and how they appear now. He said he had contacted state officials, as well as the district’s construction and bond attorneys, who have rendered legal opinions that the board can use the unspent funds from the referendum to rehabilitate areas lost during the construction process. Morton emphasized the money has already been approved by taxpayers and should be used for the purpose of finishing the high school project, which he said involves finishing the fields. However, Morton said the district cannot use referendum monies to improve the existing football field (Cassells Field) because a second question requesting funds to renovate this facility was defeated by voters in 2006. If this field is ever to be improved or renovated, the funds will have to come from capital improvement accounts, booster club fund raising, or private donations. But Morton said, “It makes sense to create a multi-sport turf field behind the school on land given to the district by the town council.” He stressed the project would have no additional tax burden on the citizens. Oroho sends a message Kevin Pollison said at the board meeting that he had a conversation with Senator Oroho who told him his office had received calls from Sparta citizens upset over the fields project. Oroho told Pollison he had not taken an official position on the fields project, but said the existing fields, especially the track, are in obvious need of repair. According to Pollison, Oroho cautioned the board to be sure they follow the law, do all the right things, and contact all the right people in the state. Pollison said he assured Oroho the board was on track and would follow the right procedures and the law throughout the project. The Independent spoke with Senator Oroho this week and he confirmed his conversation with Pollison. He added, “It’s obvious something needs to be done to the fields.” However, he emphasized the need for the board to proceed with full transparency and to use due diligence in following all necessary procedures. Oroho suggested the need for “a significant resident education aspect” to the fields project. He said the more the board educates the public about what happened to the fields, what the needs are, and what’s allowed by law, the more support they’ll see. Coaches, athletes, and booster clubs plead for better fields During public participation, the majority of those who spoke were involved in Sparta sports programs and supported the building of a multi-sport turf field and especially a synthetic track to replace the aging, hard-surface track which is in such poor condition that Sparta can no longer host home track meets. Mark Hutchison, president of the football booster club, said every team Sparta plays this year has a turf field, except High Point, and they have a synthetic track. He said, “Turf is no longer a luxury, but a necessity,” and that a multi-purpose turf field and synthetic track, “just makes sense.” Rich Heckman said he has coached Sparta track for 78 seasons. He said in 1975, the current track was new and considered state of the art. But he said the surface has worn down over time and is now just asphalt which is very hard on athletes’ legs, often causing shin splints or abrasions from falls. Jeff Hughes, Sparta’s girls tennis coach, has led his teams to 23 league championships in 26 years. He said Sparta High School’s tennis courts used to be the best in the county and they are used by the whole community. However, he said now they are full of cracks and the vibrations from the heavy construction trucks constantly rolling by over the three years of construction has caused the cracks to grow. He said the courts are falling apart and in desperate need of repair. Student athletes, Brad Myerle and John Puszcz said the condition of the athletic fields is, “horrendous” and full of potholes their cleats get stuck in. Myerle said his doctor told him to stop running on the track because it was causing him ankle problems. Brian Dolan, president of the Sparta Lacrosse Association, said the fields project would not cause taxes to go up and if the district does not do the project, taxes would not go down. He said if the district refunds the money, it would be around $.50 a day. He said, “This is a wonderful situation to have the renovation project come in under budget and on time.” He told the board, “If you pass up this opportunity you will do a disservice to the taxpayers.” Opponents remain steadfast Probably the most consistent objector to the fields project has been former board member Paul Johnson, who said he has had numerous discussions with state officials on the subject as well as an ongoing communication with county business administrator Neil Cramer. He said Cramer told him he believes the board cannot use the referendum funds in the way it intends without seeking voter approval and that if a grass field has been lost, it should be replaced with grass not turf. Johnson suggested the board take the unused $3 million and pay down the debt on the high school renovation and then hold another referendum for funds to renovate the fields. Gary Kolakowski said he thinks it’s only ethical to let citizens vote on the fields, since they voted against re-doing the football field in better economic times. He said, “I think the town could get behind the fields if a nice package is put together and they could vote on it.” James Kaufman urged the board to consider only what is necessary with the fields, not any extras, because he said, “People can’t pay their bills or their taxes.” Board debates issue The board had a lively discussion on the resolution to move forward with the fields, with the charge against the resolution led by Frank Favichia and Rich Bladek, who voted no. Doug McKernan also voted against the resolution, but he said it was not because he opposes the building of the new athletic facility. He said he wants to be sure the unspent referendum funds can be used in this way. Maureen Myre pointed out that if by law the district is allowed to replace what was lost during construction, they could replace the five grass fields lost with new grass fields. But she said there would be cost associated with that far beyond planting grass seed, and the costs of ongoing maintenance must be considered. Also mentioned was the problem of finding land since there is no longer sufficient usable land at the high school site to use for five grass fields. This is one of the rationales used by officials in proposing one multi-purpose turf field that can stand up to the year-round use of multiple sports. Mohawk Avenue School will reopen as pre-school and all day kindergarten Another new initiative introduced by Morton last week is to open Mohawk Avenue School next year for pre-school and all day kindergarten classes. He said, “We’ve had discussions with folks at the state to review the facilities and Dr. Monks is doing research.” He said, “This is something that has long been requested by the citizens of Sparta. We have the opportunity to do this now and we will move ahead.” Yes to SECTV The board approved an agreement with Service Electric Cable Television, who have offered to video tape board meetings and air them on cable access TV, at no cost to the district. The board must still amend its policy on audio and video taping of board meetings and taping cannot begin until the new policy is in place.