High school plans await DEP decision

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:52

    SPARTA n Sparta school officials are awaiting word from the state that will tell them whether they can continue with plans to build a new high school in Station Park. School board member Rich Sullivan said a Department of Environmental Protection decision is expected "any day" on the district's application to gain exemption from Highlands legislation that governs part of the property behind the existing high school off Route 517. "DEP is holding us to more scrutiny," he said. "They are going to cross every ‘T' and dot every ‘I' to make sure that we're in compliance." An ad hoc group that includes Sparta educators, the mayor and township planner met with DEP last week to help move the application process along. At the very least, the Sparta officials were hoping for an interpretation on some of the recently enacted legislation that inhibits development of the proposed property, but a Highlands representative from DEP failed to show up for the meeting. "It was good in that we got to see some of the faces and they got to see our faces," said Ronald Wolfe, assistant superintendent for schools. "But really, this whole thing is dependent on what the Highlands people say. We need something definitive n either yea or nay. We left the meeting with nothing more definitive than when we began." The board of education submitted a Highlands exemption application on July 1, but the review was not initiated until two weeks later because of a communication failure by the school district to DEP. Sullivan said once the application was accepted for review, the DEP process would take from four to six weeks. "The meeting was a necessary step in the process n it was upbeat," said Sullivan. "DEP is aware of Sparta's growth and there's a willingness to help us meet our goals to continue to develop our infrastructure." Sullivan said the state is practicing due diligence before making any sign-offs on raw land. He said DEP has addressed everything from the presence of endangered turtles to ancient Indian remains on the site and the timeframes permitting the clearance of land without disturbing bat habitats. In the meantime, township schools opened this week without any solution in sight for its crowded classrooms and increasing student population. Wolfe said the district would count the number of students who attended classes in September and compare it with the figure that had enrolled during the summer. "I have a feeling that we're going to have a plus number of students," said Wolfe. "It's a game for us of putting two pounds of sausage in a one-pound bag." Schools superintendent Thomas Morton said enrollment at the high school for the coming school year would be at 1,180, up 100 students from last year. He expected that number to increase after late registrations in August. In addition, Morton said the numbers represented 55-65 more students than reported by professional demographers hired by the school board last year. He said if the trend continues, the high school could be above capacity by at least 300 students in 2008-2009. During the summer, Morton put forth a plan that would have created split sessions for grades six through nine to open up more classroom space district-wide, but the school board's curriculum committee rejected the proposal. School officials were hoping to pass a referendum in December that would allow them to construct the new high school at upwards of $93 million, but the vote has been all but abandoned for now. Morton said that even if the referendum would have succeeded, some plan to address the growing student population needs to be in place by the 2007-2008 school year. Meanwhile, the school board, by its own admission, continues to spin its wheels while awaiting word from the state on the application to build the new high school on land that comprises soccer fields No. 1 and No. 2 in Station Park, and the high school's softball fields. According to architectural estimates obtained by the board of education in July, a 250,000 square-foot high school would cost Sparta taxpayers more than $93.6 million to build at a site in Station Park behind the current facility. School board members are now questioning the validity of those figures and have assembled a group of local volunteer experts to review those proposed costs. The experts are expected to present their findings this month. School board president David Slavin has said if DEP denies the Station Park application due to environmental restrictions, another piece of land would be pursued. But Morton has said any new site proposal would require another application with both DEP and DOE, further delaying and complicating the referendum process. Sparta officials were hoping for up to $8-15 million in construction support from the state, but the search for land had taken much longer than expected and delayed the application process deemed critical for obtaining aid, school officials have said. Morton said the goal of any new building remains to provide for curricula redesign and space for additional students throughout the district.