BOE to consider resolution to move forward with new high school fields

| 15 Feb 2012 | 09:28

    But state could halt project due to citizen complaints SPARTA — The Board of Education will vote on a resolution tonight to authorize the engineering firm of Birdsall Services Group to proceed with repairs on some of Sparta High School’s athletic fields and to begin the preliminary design work for new athletic facilities. Funds for the fields will come from monies still unspent from the $71 million high school renovation project, approved by public referendum in 2006. Adversaries of the project say it's wrong Although the board said the construction of new athletic facilities will not result in additional cost to taxpayers, since the funds have already been bonded, the prospect of expending the residual funds for fields has created some controversy among citizens. Some spoke at last month’s board meeting saying the funds should be returned to the taxpayers. This would amount to a one-time reimbursement of approximately $200 for the average Sparta household Others mentioned that the 2006 referendum also included a second question asking for $2 million to renovate Cassells Field with turf and new bleachers, but was voted down by the public. Even though the new facility currently being considered by the board is a different project and in a different location than what was proposed in 2006, critics say moving forward to create a new facility now is wrong. Board defends its position The board has often cited advice from their bond counsel, Andrea Kahn of the firm of McManimon and Scotland, who has advised them that the law allows the use of unencumbered referendum funds from a building project to be used to replace or rehabilitate anything lost or damaged as a result of the project. Although the project is still not deemed officially complete, as several minor issues and fixes are being worked out with contractors, district officials say the high school has lost five fields due to the construction: two softball fields, one soccer field, one soccer practice field, and one general practice and physical education field. The board has discussed building a multi-sport turf field as the solution to the loss of the five athletic fields. They have also discussed putting a new synthetic track around the turf field, which would replace the aging, hard-surface track which officials say is in such grave disrepair that Sparta can no longer hold home track meets because no other school will compete on the track. The start of the process Last month the board approved the first part of phase one of the initial plan which is to address drainage issues at Veterans Field (formerly Fellner) caused by the construction of a bus depot adjacent to field. The new bus depot became necessary when the high school’s new parking lot was constructed in the area formerly used for bus parking. Legality questioned However, last week County Business Administrator Neil Cramer asked to meet with Superintendent Dr. Thomas Morton and board president Keith Smith. He said he and County Superintendent Dr. Rosalie Lamonte had received numerous complaints from Sparta citizens regarding the potential fields project. Cramer told Morton and Smith he had discussions with Department of Education officials in Trenton and they told him it was doubtful the project would be approved by the state. Cramer told the Independent this week that due to concerns from residents he checked with state officials, asking their interpretation of the statutes and codes regarding the use of residual referendum funds. He said their mutual understanding is that it is allowable to replace fields lost or damaged due to the construction, but if the field lost is a grass field it would have to be replaced with a grass field, not a turf field. He said, “My understanding is that it would have to be one for one.” Morton said this was the first time he has heard this interpretation of the law and wondered how the state could make such a determination without discussing the matter with the district or seeing a proposal for the project. He said he requested that Cramer reach out to the DOE officials and invite them to visit Sparta, tour the existing fields, and discuss the potential project. Morton said he and Smith were told by Cramer that State Senator Steven Oroho had also been contacted by citizens and that he had discussed the matter with the state, advising them not to approve the project. Cramer told the Independent that, to his knowledge, Oroho had been contacted by citizens but only about the surplus funds that were discovered in June. Calls to Oroho’s office were not returned by press time. Former board member Paul Johnson, one of the most vocal opponents of the fields project, said he has had numerous discussions with state officials on this matter. He said his understanding is that the board can replace what was lost or damaged, but beyond that they must get permission to re-direct referendum funds. He said, “Nothing prevents the board from proposing the project, but it will be up to the state to approve it.” The customary procedure for school facilities projects is that after all plans and designs are drawn up and necessary permits procured, a formal proposal is presented to the DOE facilities department for final approval. State weighs in Allison E. Kobus, Communications Manager for the state Department of Education said, “I spoke with our facilities people here in Trenton and no ruling was issued that a project was prohibited. No project was proposed. However a phone conference has been set up between the district officials and the DOE facilities staff to discuss the matter. When the Executive County Superintendent’s Business Administrator Neil Cramer was asked if it was an allowable use, he said after an initial review of the code, it did not appear this type of use would be allowed. However, as I mentioned before, no proposal or plan has been presented to the department.” Voting on the resolution this evening Tonight’s resolution proposes to move forward with the remainder of phase one and also to procure the designs and necessary permits for the project to build the new athletic facility. The resolution was written for the board by Kahn, whose legal interpretation of what Sparta can do with the unspent funds appears to differ from Cramer’s. Morton said Kahn issued a detailed statement to the district in a letter dated June 15, in which she explained her opinion as to the options available to the board in handling the fields issue. However, board attorney Rod Hara has deemed the letter cannot yet be released to the public, citing attorney-client privilege. Both opponents and supporters will likely line up to weigh in on the fields project at tonight’s meeting, which is at 7:30 p.m. at the Mohawk Avenue School.