SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD, NJ -- Residents who live near Park Middle School and School One packed the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Board of Education's open meeting on Tuesday night with one thing on their mind: the proposed parking lot between the two schools that would take away part of a soccer field.

BOE Business Administrator Deborah Saridaki and Schools Superintendent Dr. Margaret Hayes appeared at their third public meeting in one week's time to explain why the school system has to expand the number of parking spaces for teachers and other Park Middle School staff. The education officials also presented at the Fanwood Borough Council meeting and the  Scotch Plains Township Council meeting last week and explained that 61 new spots are needed.

A parade of residents, including Emily DeGaetano and Kayla Murray from School One who presented a petition with over 165 signatures, took to the microphone to express their opposition to the proposed parking lot.

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"At recess people like to play on that field," said Abigail Bender, a third grader at School One. ”It (the parking lot) might be good for some of the teachers, but it's not good for the kids. This is about kids, too."

Board President Nancy Bauer told the audience that the BOE has been working with the Scotch Plains and Fanwood police departments on safety issues and has discussed possible alternatives with the Shared Services committee, which is comprised of members of both towns' governing bodies.

An issue that complicated the parking lot's suggested location is that it cannot interfere with the habitat of a wood turtle whom most residents and school officials claim they have not seen. The BOE and officials from Scotch Plains and Fanwood are scheduled to meet in two weeks with the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to examine the creek that runs along the sports fields between the two schools.

Parents and students alike are concerned because the proposed lot, which will provide spaces for the growing school staff, will cut into a field that is now used for third and fourth grade soccer. Mrs. Saridaki explained that in the past few years, the population at Park Middle has risen from 739 students to over 900 and that as a result, the staff had grown, too.

Residents voiced specific concerns about traffic and safety, drainage, the reduction of "green" space and the fact that the area is getting more "urban."

"It would be a shame not to see the kids play soccer on that field," said Vanessa White, a Madison Ave. (Fanwood) resident.

Several residents questioned whether the BOE had explored "creative" options such as using existing parking lots at All Saints Church and St. Bart's, on-street parking, replacing the maintenance area behind School One with parking spaces, or combinations of the above.

During the meeting, when a resident stated that Mayor Colleen Mahr had encouraged thinking creatively at last week's Fanwood Council meeting, BOE Vice President Jeanne Cleary encouraged the mayor to "send some of her creative ideas” to the school board.

"Being creative only works if we come up with something. We don't live in an area with open lots," Cleary said. "No one joined the Board of Education to pave over paradise. Everything is on the table (to find a solution).”

Dr. Hayes explained the BOE and the Scotch Plains and Fanwood governing bodies have been discussing the parking shortage for the past two years and that officials from both towns encouraged her to figure out a way to use school district property, rather than on-street parking. Moving forward, Dr. Hayes said that the board would be open to developing an on-street parking pilot program.

Following the meeting, Board Administrator Saridaki explained why the proposed parking lot had such a steep price tag (approximately $600,000), which caught some residents by surprise.

"This would not be a milling and paving job, which is what happens when roads are repaved," she explained. "We have to consider drainage pipes and the fact that the area is currently unpaved. That makes it a much more complicated and more costly job."

If the proposed parking lot indeed becomes the solution, the BOE will solicit competitive bids.

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