Council sends school proposal to planning board

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:48

    SPARTA-Township officials told about 200 concerned Sparta residents this week they needed more time to decide whether or not to accept a school board proposal to build a new high school up for referendum. Mayor Scott Seelagy said he had told school officials in a meeting last week that any action on the their request was unlikely before the township planning board had a chance to make recommendations next week. The planning board is scheduled to meet Wednesday, when it can either accept or reject considerations the council made in a closed-door session this past Tuesday night. A final decision on the proposal to build the $53 million high school on township-owned land off White Lake Road would then be made by the council. "It's the tail wagging the dog," said resident James Nam, before the packed council meeting this week. "This council needs to provide the leadership for the planning board to take direction." Schools Superintendent Thomas Morton said he expects the council to make a decision at its next meeting, April 24. "We understand the need to send this before the planning board, but we also know the planning board's role is only advisory," said Morton. "We need the council to make a decision on this soon." Entering last week's "emergency" meeting with the township, school officials were confident that they had found a solution to Sparta's longstanding overcrowded classroom conditions. "We're ready to move," said school board president David Slavin. "We have everything in place, but the land." And they still don't; at least until after the planning board meets Wednesday and the council reconvenes, April 24. At its meeting earlier this week, the school board had unanimously passed a resolution calling for the township council to approve its proposal at the May 10 meeting. "Quality education is the concern of all taxpayers," said Slavin. "We're asking loud and clear n let the voters decide." Morton has admitted that the property on White Lake Road had been the school board's first choice when it began planning for a new school some 18 months ago, but was "told directly" by the township that the land could not be used because of state regulations prohibiting new development. Morton said the school board is requesting that the township council swap 59.7 acres of township-owned land on White Lake Road for construction of a new high school. In return for the property, the township would receive the current high school's recreational fields and the 30-acre Veterans Memorial Fields or what is better know as the adjacent parking lot area. The White Lake Road land n about a ¼ mile behind the Sparta Car Wash off Route 15 -- was purchased with tax funds in 2001 and designated for open space or use as recreational fields. But a group of determined local residents performed some independent research on the potential swap and found that the land is not subjected to state "Green Acres" restrictions and therefore applicable to a referendum vote. "One way or another, let the people decide the use of that property," said Morton. "If in fact the majority of the people are against this referendum, then this will be a public statement that says we're against this referendum and everything will be back to status quo." Attorneys for the township have said there were many legal obstacles to overcome before the land swap could be finalized. At a township council meeting last month, proponents of a land swap presented the council with 1,554 signatures petitioning that the school board proposal for a referendum on the new school be accepted. "We're really frustrated," said Sparta resident Sandra Curran. "We have expectations in this community that this needs to get done and needs to get done right away." The school board and council have had a tenuous relationship -- at best -- during the past year, pointing fingers at each other for failed attempts to identify suitable land to build the proposed $53 million high school. The school board has come under criticism from some Sparta council members and a number of residents during the process. Three incumbents were not re-elected among eight candidates seeking to fill three seats on the school board during elections the past month. Morton has said any location identified will need to meet state Department of Environmental Protection regulations, which have been a stickling point for the Board of Education in the past. Meanwhile, about $12-15 million in state aid available to the township for building a new school is drying up in Trenton. In April, Morton said building the new school had escalated to cost taxpayers $65 million, not the $53 million that was originally projected almost a year ago. Once a site is finalized, the cost for building a new high school will be put before voters in a referendum. Last year, Sparta voters turned down a referendum that called for construction of a new elementary school.