BOE Backs Off Split Referendum

By on January 29, 2014

BOE-0128-ReferendumIn a highly charged meeting last night, the Verona Board of Education first debated splitting the proposed referendum into separate votes on the building and multi-purpose fields–and then returned to a single referendum on both projects.

The BOE meeting was held before a packed room, with many of the spectators drawn by the news that Superintendent Steven A. Forte would be resigning for a job in Denville, a story that MyVeronaNJ.com broke early yesterday afternoon.

The meeting opened with presentations from Verona High School students on outreach and extracurricular activities and an update from Forte on the district’s strategic plan (beginning at at 13:37 mark in the video below). But when the meeting turned to the referendum, it became apparent that the BOE was considering splitting the vote into two questions. BOE President John Quattrocchi said that one question would contain the spending on building repairs, security and technology updates, and repairs to the VHS parking lot and tennis courts. The work on the upper and lower fields at VHS–which would involve turfing the fields for multiple activities–would be held apart, to keep a failed vote on that question from derailing other projects. The heating system at VHS is 50 years old, and school officials are worried about it failing during the cold weather we have been having.

The BOE’s debate on the split went on for an hour, to often audible expressions of disbelief from the audience, who had considered the shape of the referendum settled. When Quattrocchi opened the floor for public comments, the reaction was harsh. Paul DellaValle, whose children have graduated from VHS, was one of several speakers who berated the BOE for undercutting Forte in his effort to get support for the referendum. “He’s got the ball and he’s running down the field and the end zone is in sight,” DellaValle said. “You guys are supposed to be the blockers, and you know what I’m seeing? You’re letting people through to tackle him.” He criticized the board for its indecisiveness on the referendum planning. “You’re failing us,” Dellavalle said. “You’ve got to stop leaning on the town. They need the fields. You don’t have priority. There are kids in town who need those fields.”

“The politics is bad and it’s getting dirty and I am appalled,” DellaValle concluded, to loud applause.

A rendering of what the lower VHS field might look like under the referendum.

A rendering of what the lower VHS field might look like under the referendum.

Quattrocchi, who had seemed in favor of a split referendum at the start of the evening, abruptly agreed to one vote on both issues, but cautioned the audience on the cost of a failed referendum. A vote on turfing the upper field at VHS lost by a wide margin, and the last referendum on building improvements passed by just 10 votes. Quattrocchi noted that because of rising rates, the interest charges on a project like the one that Verona is considering have risen by about $2 million in the last year, and predicted that they would be higher still if the BOE has to submit a new referendum in September.

Joe DeVivo, who lives in the F.N. Brown district, said he understood the risk. “The bottom line is that we have to embrace that Verona is not a lower middle class town,” he said. “We’re here for a reason. We don’t want to have a dump outside, we don’t want to have a dump in here. ” “The decision is easy– we need $15 million in upgrades to these facilities,” he added. “We have to get all this stuff done.”

What is this?

Lisa Violante said that people from outside Verona who had seen VHS were “appalled” at the condition of the school. “It’s an embarrassment,” she said, “this should have been decided a year ago.” Quattrocchi agreed, but said, with clear frustration, that the numbers on the project were still in flux and appeared to blame Forte for that.

While the meeting was going on, Joanna Breitenbach, a Laning-area resident, polled her Facebook friends for their reaction, and told the Board that they favored a single vote. “I am walking up and down my street talking to whoever I can about this,” she said.

Board member Joseph Bellino had expressed support of the single vote from the beginning of the meeting. “What we need is more people like yourself contacting your friends, contacting your neighbors,” he said in response to remarks by resident George DePaul. “You need to tell them what you’ve told us.” When Quattrocchi finally polled the others, Steve Spardel and Jim Day both acceded to the single question, but reluctantly. Only Michael Unis remained committed to a split referendum. The Board must submit final materials on the referendum to the state soon. The vote is scheduled for March 11.

You can watch the entire two-and-a-half hour meeting in the video below:


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9 Comments

  1. Lisa

    January 30, 2014 at 1:20 pm

    The three young men who represented Verona HS in the areas of outreach and extracurricular activities through different programs (the Toy donation, finance club and the greenhouse) did an excellent job at conveying their stories and message. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about . . .the students and their accomplishments. Having Verona students seen and heard in the community and beyond is a beautiful thing.

  2. Steve

    January 30, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    May sound trivial but when does it end? $164 for BOE, county taxes going up $65 a year. I am sure municipal taxes will go up, as they always do. Is there any control or responsibility as to when enough is enough. I am sure that senior citizens on a fixed income are questioning this spending. Not everyone who lives here is “upper-middle” class, some of us are just “middle” class and have to work many hours to afford to live here.

  3. Virginia Citrano

    January 30, 2014 at 4:21 pm

    Steve,

    Some of it won’t end, ever. Verona High School is 50+ years old, and there aren’t too many things that age that don’t need a bit of fixing. And it’s not only senior citizens who are on a fixed income: There’s no one in Verona who can go to their boss and say, “I need a raise because we have to fix the high school.”

    The referendum in its current form–and there may still be changes–works out to about 50 cents more per household per day. That’s not a lot to pay to make the place look less like a dump. And yes, right now, VHS looks for the most part like it is not a middle-class school building.

    And what’s the alternative? For decades, Verona–both our officials and our voters–have deferred most of the problems that need to be addressed in our school buildings. Remember that the last referendum only did half of the fixes that the architects had identified, and those fixes amounted to $34 million. More problems have cropped up since then, like the holes on the upper football field.

    Bond rates right now are the lowest they have been in decades. Decades. We can take advantage of that now and fix what needs to be fixed, or face a bigger bill later. And it might not be that much later: If the heating system at VHS fails–and remember, it is original to the building–we couldn’t have students in the building.

    Not everyone loves every aspect of this referendum. Some people don’t see why we need to spend more on school security. Some people are against spending to improve technology. Some people think we shouldn’t put a dime into the fields, even though 85% of the students at VHS use them in one way or another. And some people even think that VHS doesn’t need a facelift.

    But a community is more than one student, one opinion or even one vote. And collectively, the time has come to make the fixes.

  4. Laura

    February 27, 2014 at 1:07 pm

    I believe that the most important thing is the safety of our children.
    I am all for the repairs needed in all the schools.
    I am also in agreement to fix the existing field that has a sink hole problem.
    The existing tennis court which is deteriorating.

    I DO NOT agree with “another” tennis court.
    I DO NOT agree with a turf field so the band can practice. Many schools practice on grass fields, sometimes parking lots and frequently their auditoriums. I have even practiced in adjacent parks.
    The cost and necessity is not there to justify a turf field.

    Security in the schools “EXTREMELY” important.

    WI FI is something that should be put on hold until all the repairs and safety issues have been addressed.

    Just a thought, Verona spent how much money on that very elaborate slide on the pool. Why wasn’t that money allocated to better use such as repairs for all of the schools.

    I do not feel money allocated to this town has been used wisely in many instances.

    Let’s not repeat this practice.

    Laura

  5. Virginia Citrano

    February 27, 2014 at 2:07 pm

    Laura, thanks for sharing your views. Just wanted to clarify a few things.

    Although all spending for things like the Verona Pool and the school facilities all seem to come out of the same place, our pockets, they are in fact budget that must, by law, be kept separate.

    The new tennis court is an effort by the BOE to make lemonade out of lemons. As MyVeronaNJ.com has reported, contaminated fill was detected by the parking lot next to the existing courts. It must, by law, be capped–covered with something. By capping the area with a new tennis court we remediate the fill problem and ease the demand for tennis courts, which right now greatly outstrips our supply.

    As for the band, it is the single largest extracurricular activity at Verona High School–more than one quarter of the school’s students participate in music. The band used to rehearse on the upper field. Because the field has been closed by the sinkholes, the band now has to practice on the parking lot, which reduces the available parking spaces by two thirds and creates lots of angry drivers. The band cannot simply practice in the park: You would need to transport the students and their equipment, which means $$$ for four buses and a truck for every practice, and Verona Park is owned by the county not the township of Verona, so the band would need permits and it would have to pay to stripe the lawn–if the county would even agree to that. A multi-purpose field could accommodate multiple sports and the band with ease.

    Thanks to the recession, bond rates fell to their lowest point since World War II. They have risen over the last year, and will continue to rise if Verona delays the approval of this referendum. BOE President John Quattrocchi calculated at one recent meeting that the cost of servicing the referendum debt is already $250,000 higher than it would have been last year. For that reason alone, let alone the education assistance it provides, it makes no sense to delay the WiFi–or any other aspect of the referendum spending.

    We cannot, at this point, cherry pick aspects of the referendum. The vote is all or nothing, and nothing at this point would be a very unwise use of taxpayer money because there is nothing in this referendum that does not need to be done.

    The cost of the referendum is 48 cents per day to the average taxpayer household in Verona. I can’t even buy penny candy for that amount in town, and fixing the schools would be a much wiser use of my money.

  6. Barbara Bochese

    March 5, 2014 at 9:44 am

    The decision to put everything into this referendum was certainly intentional.

    I don’t think there is any doubt that the schools need to be improved/upgraded. However, let’s talk about how much of the total monies requested will go to the facility upgrades and how much will go to “the fields”.

    Doesn’t 48 cents a day sound reasonable? Let’s turn that into $175 per year more. Now that doesn’t sound that great when you add to that the standard increases that come from municipal, county and education.Now does it? SO, I ask again how much of this referendum is going to anything other than the facility upgrade?

    Every taxpayer should be asking themselves the following questions:

    1. BE A GOOD NEIGHBOR. What does it mean to be a good neighbor to the taxpayers who live around the new fields? How will this impact them and how do we make these decisions in their best interest as well?

    2. WHAT IS ESSENTIAL? Let’s use the word ESSENTIAL when reviewing the field upgrades. Are all of “the field upgrades” essential to learning of students including Verona high school sports? Is it ESSENTIAL that we add another tennis court or would it be better to remove the fill? What everyone forgets is that by adding a second court you will need to maintain it and increase the parking which will start to encrouch on our neighbors living near the high school. What REALLY happened to the turf field near the community center? If the football field is “fixed”, then what upgrades are ESSENTIAL to the lower field? Don’t we already have a track behind the middle school? Are turf fields ESSENTIAL to learning and sports?

    While we are asking taxpayers to support this costly referendum, let’s be really honest about what we NEED versus what we would like to have. Kids in a candy store always want more than they can eat.

    Let’s be prudent with taxpayers money and let’s be good neighbors to EVERYONE.

    It is insulting to me that a large part of the arguments for the referendum center around the fields and the needs of the band and sport teams when the buildings are in such deplorable condition. Are these “wants” really about our children’s education?

    By the way, I am a parent of two children who attended Verona High School and played soccer, lacrosse and ice hockey. My middle son was captain of the hockey team. I support Verona sports.

    I also live on Dodd Terrace and I expect the BOE and my fellow Verona-ites to be mindful, considerate and respectful to the people who live near and next door to the high school.

  7. Virginia Citrano

    March 5, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    Barbara, thanks for your input. Some clarifications are in order, though.

    Fixing the upper field will not return it to use as a football field. The BOE has backed off a plan to compact the entire surface because that could cause damage to the foundation at VHS and neighboring houses. So we would be left with only about 60% of Sellitto Field: Enough for gym classes, but not enough for games.

    In May 2013, the engineering firm that investigated the field concluded that it would cost $7.1 million to dig up the problem fill on the field and in the parking lot area, something that the BOE quickly deemed too costly. Its solution–creating another tennis court and expanding the parking lot–is a way to make lemonade out of some of the lemons. We must cap the problem areas and if we are going to cover them, the BOE concluded that they should be put to work. There is not enough parking in the VHS lot and cars frequently park on the grass west of Dodd Terrace.

    Yes, we have a track behind HBW, but it too needs major repairs and Verona is in talks with MKA-it’s partner in building the track a decade ago–about making those fixes. The center oval there is used only for HBW gym classes and pick-up soccer games. The new Hilltop fields are sized for youth sports only, not high school games.

    The question of what is “essential” is thorny. Essential after all means absolutely necessary or indispensable. You probably saw the piece in the Atlantic Monthly last September arguing against high school sports. Maybe you agreed with it. But there are a fair number of people in Verona who believe that field sports are indispensable. And remember that the fields at VHS are used for other things too: The VHS Band Parents have made the fall marching band festival an indispensable part of its fundraising (music is the largest single extracurricular activity at VHS). That festival can’t be held on the upper field any more and the logistics of doing it on the lower field are daunting.

    Having safe playing fields is probably indispensable too. We’re very lucky that we never had an athlete or musician impaled by the metal that was just inches below the surface of the fill on the upper field. I realize that there are just as many studies implicating turf fields in injuries as there are studies clearing them of problems. And I’m sure there are some people who find the ripples in the surface of Doc Goeltz field amusing.

    At the February 11 Board of Ed meeting, Joe Bellino (who pinches pennies pretty hard in the BOE’s budgets) noted that 19 Essex County high schools now play on turf. Only 7 don’t, and one of them is Verona. “Our student athletes are our first line of ambassadors,” Bellino said. “We send them out there in maroon and white uniforms; they have ‘Verona’ on their helmets and jerseys. To send them out there to play on fields that are better than what we can provide for them is not something that I think we should be proud of.”

  8. Barbara Bochese

    March 5, 2014 at 1:26 pm

    I would prefer that you not make assumptions regarding my opinion on the referendum. Not once in your response did you address what being a good neighbor means to the people who live next to the high school.

    I will assume that you are my good neighbor and you are considerate of the people who live next to the high school and you decisions aout the referendum include my and my neighbors best interest. And I will assume that the Board of Education has as well.

    There are alot of costs associated with the development of the fields and alot of questions around managing them, sustaining them and the usage costs from year one and on that every taxpayer has a right to the answer. And what about usage and lighting and noise and traffic for the people who live next to the school?

    And there are questions that have gone unanswered as to why where the fields built for youth sports in the first place? And why not improve the track that already exists? Do we need another one? Remember, lemons can turn into rotting fruit after a while.

    I know Joe Bellino well and consider him a friend. That does not mean I blindly agree with him nor would he ever expect me to not have my own opinion and concerns.

    There are alot of unanwered questions for the people living next to the High School that is not about a yes or no vote on the referendum.

    So, I am certain you, my fellow neighbors and the BOE care about the people who live around the school and we have alot of concerns and unanswered questions since this affects us in our everyday lives far more than you.

    While you are championing the referendum, how about you support your neighbors as well, to ensure that whatever “improvements” are made we all can benefit from them and those that us that live near the high school can live with.

  9. Virginia Citrano

    March 5, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    The Hilltop fields have been in development for almost 10 years. Lots of questions have been asked and answered. Lots of sports groups have given input on the fields, which has altered their design more than once.

    The BOE has been talking to MKA for since December 2012 about the fixes that must be made to the HBW track. They’ve even gotten at least one cost estimate, which they turned back because it was too high. There is no plan for another track on the proposed multipurpose complex on the lower field or any place else that we’re aware of. And remember that, right now, none of the revenue that Verona is getting from the Hilltop apartments–which is funding the construction of the youth sports fields–is being shared with the BOE as regular property taxes would be. Under the PILOT agreement, the town gets 95% of the monies and the county gets 5%. Mr. Bellino has asked repeatedly for Hilltop revenue to be shared because he sees how much need there is at the schools.

    As for neighbors, the houses on upper Franklin Street existed before VHS, but the Ann Street homes were built almost concurrently with the high school and the houses on Dodd Terrace were built 5 or more years after VHS. Maybe the developer then thought putting houses near a high school field was a good idea. Has traffic changed since then? Yes, absolutely. Has the demand for fields changed since then? Yes as well, from elementary schools up through high school. The changes to Verona have been the backdrop to almost every discussion on schools and fields, and they likely will continue to be so.

    The one thing that has not changed in all this time is that people in Verona want Verona to remain a desirable place to live. People will factor that into their decision on the referendum, and vote accordingly. In the meantime, this site remains a place where all points of view on the referendum can be expressed.

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