Council declines to make a decision, wait continues for Sparta residents

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:48

    SPARTA-Three young kids tried to step across her as they squeezed their way through the aisle. The woman sitting on the floor, her long flowered skirt draped across the heavily trafficked carpet in the Sparta Municipal Building, did her best to ease them by. There were people to her left; more to her right. She could barely see over the chairs in front of her. These days, this is what it's like to be a Sparta resident, those who now attend town meetings that once were deserted. This is what it's like to want a new high school in town where few disagree classroom space is at a premium. This is what it's like to be Sandra Curran. "When you corner a parent, they will fight for their kids," said Curran, a working mother of three small children, outside the township council meeting this week. "It's a maternal instinct. We're not going to stand by and let this happen." Curran was talking about what she believes is an emergency; the need to build a new high school in town. There are other residents who agree with her. At least 200 or so filled the council chambers until there was no place to stand, but outside the building. Anyone with an opposing point of view must have been further back across the street and past the VFW Hall because they could not be heard. The people at the latest township council meeting were many of the same residents who used to meet at their children's softball games, in church, or along the parade route through White Deer Plaza on the Fourth of July. Now they meet in the municipal building every other Tuesday night. They pleaded passionately with the council members, mayor, manager and attorney to accept the school board's proposal to present a referendum to build a new high school on township-owned land off White Lake Road. Of those who spoke and those who listened, some might be considered seniors; those some say, should care less because their children have already passed through the doors of the current 50-year-old high school. Others in the audience had young children, the future freshmen who were inheriting horror stories about high school that the big kids were handing down to them. And there were still some more, those who just came because that's what friends told them to do; friends in the supermarkets, at the post office or the bagel shops, where they now say hello to each other and talk about education issues in town. Manny Goldberg was there. He was a member of the community task force that began looking into solutions to address the overcrowded classrooms 18 months ago. He's one of those Sparta seniors who shouldn't care, but he walked along the streets of Lake Mohawk anyway to gather some 1,500 signatures petitioning for a land swap between the school board and township. He's one who wants a new high school on the White Lake Road property behind the car wash off Route 15. Sue Case was there. Pointing to the table in front of Henry Underhill, where the township manager sat back in his chair taking notes on a yellow legal pad, she spoke about a cart half the size of his table that the German instructor uses to teach eight classes at Sparta High School. She's one who wants a new high school. Chris Quinn, she was there, too. Quinn's another one of those mothers with children in the Sparta school system. Her son doesn't attend school in Sparta; not any more. Chris Quinn must wish he did. She's one who wants the new high school. And there was the little middle school student. She knows high school can be scary enough. Now she worries about someday having to eat lunch at 9 a.m. That's what she's heard the high school kids have to do because the cafeteria is too crowded. She's one who wants the new high school, too. The mayor has said he realizes there's a problem with overcrowded schools. He said something needs to be done. He has said he is not sure what. "My position is to look at all things before the decisions are made," said Scott Seelagy. The mayor has said he learned of the school board's White Lake Road request around April 21, the week the council received a letter stating of the intent. The issue came up again before the public at the following township council meeting April 26, when residents demanded an immediate answer to the school board proposal; even confronting the council with a six-day deadline. A week ago, Thursday, May 5, the schools superintendent and board of education president met with the mayor, township manager, two members of the planning board and attorneys representing both sides. The other night, Sandra Curran figured it out to be at least three weeks, depending on whom to believe, since the council and board of education had publicly admitted to being on the same page about a new site for the school. Curran's pretty good with numbers. She has to be. She's a certified public accountant when she's not attending school board and township council meetings. Curran heard the mayor say the council would consider the school board proposal in a closed-door session following the public meeting this week. He said the closed-door session was necessary because of the potential for litigation over building a new high school on land that was once purchased with tax funds in 2001 and designated for open space or use as recreational fields. Four council members, an attorney, and a township manager said they needed some more time. "I don't know if they've (school board) explored all the alternatives," said Seelagy. The audience listened, like they had before. Many took notes. Some had prepared statements. Their homework was done and ready to be turned in. But the mayor said the council needed more time before forwarding its recommendations to the planning board, which would either accept or reject the proposal. Only then, the mayor said, would the council be able to make a final decision on a referendum to build the new school. "I honestly can't give you a date," said Seelagy, when prodded. "I will tell them (Planning Board)" to move quickly. "I'm confident we'll have this done before June 13." Curran sat and listened to it all from her spot on the floor, a copy of the state Open Public Meetings Act in her hand. She said she missed watching her 12-year-old son hit his first Little League home run this year. These days, she's too caught up with things like Green Acres, eminent domain, and No. 2 pencils. She says it's not like her. "I guess the council thinks this will make us go away," said Curran. "It only makes us want to come back. This property has bound this community in a way that is shocking. We will fight for our kids."