Saturday, September 21, 2013

New Hope-Solebury School Board bans night games

By Charlie Sahner

In a move that left many around New Hope and Solebury slack-jawed in disbelief, the New Hope-Solebury School Board voted on Monday to turn off the lights at stadium field after the fall season.

Board Member Alison Kingsley made the surprise motion, which had neither been listed on the agenda nor publicly advertised, and it was seconded by John Vaughn. Marleen Panzika, Valerie Mitchell, and Kurt Zander joined them in voting in favor of the motion. School Board President Amanda Elefante had left the room at the time of the vote, and Board Member Susan Atkinson represented the lone vote against the measure. Joseph Harraka and Jonathan Adar were not in attendance at the meeting.

The subject of New Hope-Solebury's sports fields has come up frequently in recent years, as the school district is under-served in terms of practice and event space, which in turn can exacerbate Title IX compliance issues that seek to provide equal access to facilities for boys and girls. Additionally, some nearby neighbors have complained about the level of light and sound associated with nighttime sports events. One plan to address these concerns involved building a stadium funded substantially by private donations in an area referred to as Field 13. Key advantages of Field 13 are its distance from neighboring residents and its excellent topography, say plan advocates.

It was that proposal to pursue a stadium at Field 13 that was under consideration on the night of Sept. 16. School officials had previously taken measures to placate neighbors, including limiting pregame music, cutting overall sound amplification levels in half, and shutting down field lights by 9:30 p.m. after each game. Nonetheless, the Board voted down the compromise plan, and then went a step further, effectively banning night games altogether starting in the spring.

Despite multiple attempts, as of press time, no member of the New Hope-Solebury School Board or its counsel had provided an explanation or rationale for their vote that night to this publication. Three individuals close to the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the School Board is not in receipt of any litigation by disgruntled neighbors.

Elefante, who did not vote, said in a statement, "My expectation was that the Board would take action on the resolution on the agenda with discussion on whether field #13 or field #12 would be selected. I had spent an hour on the phone that day with Dave Horne from [athletic facilities consultant group] Architerra reviewing the potential of this deliberation and ensuring that he came prepared for it.

"Over the past two years, I have facilitated discussions as Board President on issues around Field #2, but I have chosen to recuse myself from Board discussion, and from making any public comments, and have abstained on voting. Since I was serving as Board President, and I am also a neighbor, I felt it was the best decision," she added.

Board Member Joseph Harraka said he was "blindsided" by the vote, which he called an "unfortunate decision which I would have adamantly opposed."

"During the previous Board meeting we seemed to be heading toward striking middle ground and coming up with a win-win compromise. It's not just about sports games, it's about the sense of community spirit and the chance for working people to be part of that. This action will signal to the greater community that we're pandering to a limited contingent, and will undermine the confidence in and credibility of the Board. This action should have been undertaken through the normal course, including soliciting the commentary of the community," he continued.

Concluded Harraka, "I believe the decision is procedurally defective."

Peter Malamis, chairman of the New Hope-Solebury Education Fund said, "After all we've been through with this board, this eleventh-hour approach is disappointing, but not surprising. In fact, it's standard operating procedure and this kind of governance is why the incumbents running for re-election couldn't even make it out of the primary.

"There are a myriad of solutions to the concerns of a handful of neighbors that as a member of the task force that worked with them I know for a fact are acceptable to them -- solutions that don't negatively impact taxpayers, parents, and students like this one does. With all the pressing academic needs of our district, this is the last issue we should be spending time and money on. I look forward to the new board in December that knows better what our priorities should be and how to properly get things done," he added.

Raymond Boccuti, superintendent of schools for the New Hope-Solebury School District, commented, "We want to be the best neighbors we can. I'm also interested in whatever is best for the students, and we need more fields. What's nice is that members of the community are offering to help pay, so no one loses."

That is, of course, if the decision is reversed at the next School Board meeting scheduled for Oct. 21 and open to the public. Should the decision stand, the Athletic Department will be forced to undo a schedule that is approximately 75% complete to accommodate the ban on night games next spring, and the teenagers of New Hope and Solebury will have to find other ways to keep themselves occupied in the evening.

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