When the vote counts for the Parsippany Board of Education fields referendum started coming after the polls closed at 9 p.m. Tuesday, the will of the people became quite clear very quickly: Most voters said no. And school board members and citizens in attendance, whatever their particular view on the matter, appeared shocked.
The first count shown was for Central Middle School: The yes votes were 119, the no votes 218.
And then Intervale School: 115 yes, 227 no.
"This doesn't look good," said a voice that sailed ominously through the meeting room at the BOE building.
For supporters, the news wasn't good. In the final unofficial count, the opposition had it: 2,373 to 1,745.
"The people have spoken," said board member Anthony Mancuso. "They said that at this time, this wasn't a project that they wanted to fund due to the economic restraints, and I respect that. The taxpayers have every right to feel that way."
He added, however, that he wishes that they had felt differently.
"To do a capital project of this magnitude in today's world costs a lot of money," he said. "Maybe it was too ambitious to do two schools at the same time, but we believed in in parity between the two schools and that's why we approached it this way."
Mancuso said that a future school board will have to decide if it wants to approach another facilities upgrade referendum.
"As for now, the board will do its best within its budget constraints to give our students the best that we can," he said, noting the limited funds for field maintenance in the schools budget and the serious flaws inherent in the playing fields of Parsippany and Parsippany Hills high schools.
Mancuso also said that there could be a "Plan B—if the town is willing to sit down with the board to truly look at possibly converting or renovating Jannarone Park to handle high school football."
Board member Fran Orthwein did not hide her disappointment.
"This was a missed opportunity for the community to make a lasting, positive improvement, and that's a shame," she said, chalking up the decisive loss to "a lot of misconceptions and misleading rumors that may have influenced people."
She said she understood that people could be wary of a tax hike.
"But this really could have been an asset to our community, an asset to their home values, and most importantly, for all of Parsippany's children, families, everyone. I'm sorry it didn't pass."
"I really don't know what to say," said resident Michael Espejo, who lives near Par Hills High and was not a referendum supporter. "I still think the democratic process failed."
Espejo was referring to the fact that some voters from the Brooklawn Drive and Powder Mill neighborhood—Parsippany areas served by the Morris Plains post office—never received either the sample ballot mailed out on Jan. 3, according to the Morris County clerk's office, or a referendum information card sent out by the Board of Education.
Kristen Ritter, a neighbor of Espejo's and a Republican Municipal Committee member, echoed his concerns.
"I'm still [upset] that some people didn't get their [sample] ballots," she said. "Win or lose, that doesn't go away. This is a democracy. Everybody has the right to be informed and to make an informed vote.
"Frankly, I'm surprised the turnout was so high."
Many in the township feared the combination of a perceived lack of information among voters, the January date and the frigid temperatures would keep voter turnout low, but traffic started brisk and remained so throughout the voting period, according to Municipal Clerk Yancy Wazirmas. Board member Mancuso even noted that the turnout was about the size of the usual school board election, which up until last year took place in April.
Ritter said she would continue her mission to find out why the ballots were not delivered.
She added that the need for fields is understood by most of the community, even if the majority of Tuesday's voters did not support the board's plan.
"There are a lot of people willing to work with the board to figure out a solution for the kids," Ritter said. "It may not be a deluxe solution with $7.7 million worth of stuff, but there may be a way to activate motivated people to come up with a way to make safe playing fields."
Resident and former BOE member Robert Crawford said the resounding no vote is the result of citizens' dissatisfaction with the school board, which he said has been less than open with citizens.
"This vote sends a clear message to all of Parsippany's elected officials on the BOE and in the mayor's office and the Town Council that Parsippany residents deserve and expect to be informed and trusted to make the right decision," he said. "Failure to trust the voters with the truth is and will be a losing proposition."
School Board President Susy Golderer, who voiced concerns over the price and scope of the project during the planning stages, said she was surprised by Tuesday's vote.
"I'm stunned," she said. "I did not expect this. I honestly thought it was going to pass."
She said the community wanted an opportunity to decide and did so.
"Now we have to work within the parameters that we have," she said. "The board has to sit down and go over all the possible avenues to bring our fields up to standards. That's what the community is expecting of us."
And as president, Golderer said she will ensure that the process is a transparent one that looks at all alternatives, including accepting donations from interested residents and area businesses and corporations that want fields that can "bring pride to Parsippany."
"I want these fields, not just for the kids, but for all of us, so we can have pride in what we have," she said. "We're going to make this happen."
And Golderer offered comfort to those feeling defeated.
"I know there are disappointed people who worked really hard to put this vote in front of the community," she told Patch. "I truly hope that they do not allow this to undermine their spirit.
"I hope that they come forward and use the same resources to see if we can make this happen, but this time with private donations. I know that all the people of Parsippany want our town and our schools to be held to the highest stature possible."