Council opens door for school referendum, with conditions

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:49

    SPARTA-A referendum on the November ballot will ask Sparta residents whether they want to leave open the possibility for a new high school to be built on White Lake Road. The township council approved the referendum at its meeting on Tuesday, with only one councilman, Douglas Martin, voting against it. But Sparta education officials and proponents of a new school, who stayed close to midnight to hear the council's decision, were not happy. They said the district will not now qualify for millions in state aid to build the new school. "We didn't get what we wanted," said Jay Jones, a member of the now-defunct Community Facilities Taskforce, which began looking at ways to reduce the district's overcrowded classrooms over a year ago. "What we really got was the council maneuvering and continuing to maneuver." The referendum will allow voters to choose the township-owned White Lake Road property as a site for the much-debated $65 million high school. If voters pass the measure, they will face a second referendum in December asking them to approve funding for construction. The proposed site is 59.7 acres off Route 15, about a quarter-mile behind the Sparta Car Wash. Sparta Schools Superintendent Thomas Morton, who has spearheaded the effort to build a new school, sat back in a chair in his office and tried to compose himself after the council's decision. Attorneys for the board of education had told him that separate referendums in November and December would eliminate any chance the district will receive up to $15 million in state aid for construction. Morton said he had told this to the mayor. "Before the council took its vote tonight, the mayor was provided with documentation from both our bond attorney and our architect indicating exactly the same thing, and they still voted for a dual referendum," said Morton. "That means we probably can't get any state funding. We will check this out, but I believe at this point we will not get any state funding." Morton said an architectural firm confirmed the attorneys' findings, that any application for state aid without a "definitive site for the new building" would prohibit the district from filing for aid with the state Department of Education. The Spiezle Architectural Group of Trenton reported that before accepting an application for a new school, the state must approve a "Land Acquisition Application" from the district. All applicants must meet requirements related to wetlands, appropriateness of use, soil conditions, water supply and sewage. Morton said attorneys representing the township and school district had agreed at a meeting last week that dual referendums would not be an issue in any council resolution. For his part, Sparta Mayor Scott Seelagy said he was not made aware of the reports from the attorneys and the architectural firm until Tuesday's council meeting. School board president David Slavin presented him with the documents, dated May 24, during the meeting, he said. "I have not had the opportunity to look at the opinions of this one attorney," said Seelagy. "They may be accurate, they may be not." Seelagy said he took Tuesday off from work to write an eight- to nine-page resolution that he shared with council members immediately before the public hearing. During the day, he said, he spoke with an attorney in the office of legislative services who suggested the school board would be given full consideration for state aid if it applied by June 13, even if the land would not be made available until after a November vote. "I proposed the facts to her and asked her very specifically," said Seelagy. "I was told in no uncertain terms it's done all the time. School boards routinely file applications without even having property. We're even further than that. Not only do we have property which is identified, it's going up for public vote." Seelagy said during the meeting he could not remember the name of the attorney he spoke to that day. Bond attorneys representing the Sparta Schools District have counseled three-quarters of the state's school districts, he said. Jay Jones said the council is not trying hard enough. "That's why everyone is upset," said Jones. "The council did not lead and find the ‘we can.' In fact again, they found the `I can't.' " Seelagy attached about 11 to 12 conditions the school must meet to gain municipal backing, including the requirement that the township may not convey the White Lake property to the school board without first receiving assurances the project will get state funds. Morton said the school district would have to regroup but must first get a copy of the signed resolution, which was unavailable to the superintendent and school board president following the hearing. "We asked for one, but [the council] said none were available despite the fact that all council members were reading it," said Morton. "I heard tonight that if, in fact, we don't get the state funding — which they stopped us from getting tonight — they won't convey the land no matter what the people vote. I think they passed a motion that would preclude us from getting that White Lake land." Jonathan Rush, who was elected in April to his first term on the Sparta school board, said he too wanted to review the conditions attached to the council resolution. His indoctrination into the bitter dealings between the council and school district has been a slow one. "On the surface, it would look like we got what we wanted n an opportunity to have the township vote on the use of the property, which is what we wanted," said Rush, who stumbled into a first-time conversation with a member of the planning board while the council deliberated its vote. Just last week, the planning board had recommended the council reject the school board's request to put the White Lake property — purchased with tax funds in 2001 and designated for open space or use as recreational fields — up for public referendum (for related story, please turn to page 3). "We just didn't want it with all these encumbrances," said Rush. "We needed it probably in a little bit different fashion that might have aided us in getting the money that's available from the state." In April, proponents of acquiring the White Lake property for a new school had presented the council with a 1,154-signature petition. Sparta education officials project that in September, 370 current eighth-graders will replace this year's high school class of 220 seniors. Even taking into account the average annual student attrition from eighth to ninth grade, an additional 140 freshman will fill an already burdened high school, Morton said. The new school has escalated to a cost of $65 million, not the $53 million originally projected almost a year ago, Morton said last month.