BOE taking steps to fix flawed fields

| 15 Feb 2012 | 09:10

    High school athletic fields could get a facelift with leftover funds SPARTA — The Board of Education voted last week to take a step toward the possibility of rehabilitating some of the high school athletic fields, and perhaps eventually replacing others. By a vote of 7 to 1 the board approved step one of a proposal from the engineering firm of Birdsall Service Group to conduct a preliminary study of ways to improve Veterans (formerly Fellner) Field, where lacrosse and soccer games are played. For a fee of $11,885.00, Birdsall will perform an investigation to determine how to resolve drainage issues that plague the field, often rendering it unusable. Drainage became a growing issue on the site since a new bus depot and paved parking area was built adjacent to the property. The bus depot was moved to that location when the former bus parking area was turned into a school parking lot due to the high school reconstruction. If drainage can be resolved, the field can remain usable for both sports for the majority of their seasons. High School Principal Dennis Tobin and Athletic Director Pat Shea made a presentation to the board regarding this and numerous other issues the high school currently faces due to the condition of its athletic fields, as well as the loss of several fields due to the expanded footprint of the renovated high school. A former soccer field is now a retention pond, and a former football practice field and two softball fields were either completely lost or significantly reduced due to new parking lots and new wings of the high school. Tobin said, “I think we should all be very proud of this 21st century, state of the art building we’re sitting in right now. This building will meet the educational needs of our students for many years to come. We also have excellent co-curricular activities. However, our outside facilities are inadequate and don’t match this beautiful building.” The problems Shea said the school currently offers 28 sports, 19 of which are played outside. He said two-thirds of the school’s student body is involved in athletics as well as the marching band, which also uses the fields. He said the existing fields are stretched to their limits with no opportunity to rest the natural surfaces. Shea said some town recreation programs also use the fields. The 40-year-old track has not been resurfaced since 1982, Shea said, and is made of blacktop and full of cracks. He said Sparta can no longer host track meets because other schools do not want to compete on the hard surface and the facility cannot accommodate three large teams plus their spectators. Shea said the tennis courts are also full of cracks and cannot remain playable for very long in that condition. He said the football field has little grass right now and the aging bleachers would not be considered up to code if they were built in the same manner today. Board member Scott Turner said that after the summer practices, “The football field is now dirt and rock. The fields suck right now.” The pitch Shea said he conducted a survey of the 48 “I” district high schools, (Sparta’s district factor group, which is based on the community’s socio-economic level), and 40 responded. He said 38 of the 40 have a synthetic track and 30 have an artificial turf field. He said 19 have a turf field in their community which they can use. In the Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference, of which Sparta is a member, Shea said 15 of the 16 schools have a synthetic track. Sparta is the one that does not. He said seven have a turf field and five have a turf field in their communities. Shea said all successful high school athletic programs are moving to turf fields and the answer to Sparta’s field problems is to construct a multi-sport turf field and a synthetic track. Tobin said a multi-sport turf field can be used year-round, adding, “Seventy-five per cent of comparable schools are going that way.” Although the board took only a baby step toward fixing the fields problems last week, previously there has been some discussion of using residual funds from the high school project to solve all fields issues with one new facility that would encompass a multi-sport, lighted, all-weather turf field, surrounded by a synthetic track. Although the track was not directly impacted by the building project, officials say the reasoning is that if one multi-use, low maintenance turf field can be built, it makes sense, if funds permit, to incorporate a safer, synthetic track in the same location and remove the old track to create a large square grass field that can also be used for several sports. The possibility On several occasions the board has explained that bond attorney, Andrea Kahn, has advised that by law, the district has only two choices in how it may disburse funds left over from the $71 million referendum voters approved to renovate the high school. The district can use the funds to repair or replace any part of the buildings and grounds that were lost, damaged, or otherwise impacted by the building process. Or they can return the funds to the taxpayers in a one-time reimbursement. This number is not yet definite, but officials estimate it could be around $200 per average household. They cannot use the funds in the operating budget, such as for curriculum, personnel, or capital projects for other buildings. A common misperception in the public is that the board could decide to hold another referendum to let the public decide how the funds will be used. But the law does not allow a second referendum vote on funds already approved in a previous referendum. Another common misperception is that it would be a huge expense for taxpayers if the board moves forward with fixing the fields. However, no additional taxes would be necessary because the funds were already approved in the 2006 referendum and the money has already been bonded. The protests Most critics of using residual funds to replace the fields cite the second question of the 2006 referendum which asked for $2 million to refurbish the existing Cassels football field and bleachers across the street from the high school. This was voted down by the public. Last week former SEA president Melva Cumings said at the board meeting that it looked like Morton had stacked the meeting with sports groups and supporters of the new fields in an attempt to “orchestrate” the meeting to fulfill his own agenda. But only a few parents and players attended the meeting and the majority of students present were there to support teacher Angela Davis, whose directorship of the spring musical was voted on by the board. (See related story) Audrey Earl said she would never again vote for a school budget if the board moves forward with replacing the fields. Phil Seranni said, “If you do this without a referendum, you’ll have a rebellion in this town.” Paul Johnson said his understanding was that only facilities directly impacted by the building project could be rehabilitated with residual funds, but that other areas being considered, such as the track, would have to be decided by referendum. Morton said after the meeting that they plan to proceed cautiously, get all the facts first, and said, “We won’t do anything unless out bond attorney says it’s a go.”