Numbers didn't add up for Sussex Tech-Sparta deal

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:17

    SPARTA-Sparta schools' attempt last week to work with the Sussex County Technical School for new high school building space was, according to some district officials, the last possible effort to work with a willing provider of land. However, the technical school proved to be more vibrant than Sparta officials expected and faces enrollment increases of its own. Sparta Schools Superintendent Thomas Morton told Sussex Tech board members at a joint meeting last week that his district has spent "the better part of eight months trying to secure land" for a new high school building to ease overcrowding, but that there are no willing sellers. He said the new Highlands Act restrictions protect some open land against new construction, and housing developers are buying up what township land is available. By the end of that meeting Sparta ruled out another option on its list of possible solutions to its overcrowding problem n buying or sharing building space with Sussex Tech, which owns about 80 acres on Route 94 in Sparta Township's northern tip. Sparta school officials, facing a certain crisis in overcrowding, have spent months looking at options. A community survey showed the majority of Sparta residents favor building a new high school. Sparta schools currently have 3,985 students, according to data released by district officials. Projections show that next year student enrollment is expected to be 4,110 and by the 2008-2009 school year 4,477, which is almost 1,000 students over current building capacity. "I don't think the citizens of Sparta are going to be very happy with what's going to happen if we don't have a new facility," Sparta Board of Education President David Slavin said at last week's meeting. Overcrowding at Sparta High School is the district's most pressing concern, officials have said. For example, this year's senior class of 240 students will leave the high school and will be replaced by this year's eighth grade class of 370 students moving into the high school. "There's no more room at the inn," Slavin said. The problem of too many elementary and middle students moving up to the high school is compounded by added new housing construction in the township, Slavin said. Some 860 new homes have been approved for construction already, he said. Sussex Tech administrators said last week they would "keep the lines of communication open" on the possibility of selling land to Sparta for a new high school, or sharing facilities, but ruled out allowing use of their existing buildings. "Each year, every classroom is occupied" on Sussex Tech's campus, said Sussex Tech Superintendent Joseph Cammarata. "There are no open classrooms available in our school." He said enrollment at the Sussex Tech high school is up 6.5 percent this year, with total student enrollment at 665 students, who come from districts all over the county. Sussex Tech Board of Education President Gary Sargent said rumors of Sussex Tech closing down were unfounded. "For us to disband would be devastating," Sargent said. "We're here for a long time." He said without Sussex Tech, each sending district would get back their portion of the students who now attend Tech, and would have to provide technical and vocational training themselves. Sussex Tech has vacated a building on the west side of Route 94, across the street from the main campus, where administrative offices used to be housed. Sussex Tech officials told the Sparta board that they have two 25-acre pieces of land available that they might consider selling to Sparta schools. But the Sussex Tech board was warned not to rush into a decision to sell land or share facilities with another district. "I just want to caution you to go slowly," said Chris Hollis, a teacher at Sussex Tech. She criticized a suggestion by one Sparta resident to turn the Sussex Tech campus over to Sparta for a new high school and build a new technical high school at a more central location. "Uprooting our kids and moving them somewhere else is not good for any students." Sparta officials said after touring Sussex Tech's buildings, it was clear that they couldn't handle the 1,600 students a new Sparta high school would have to accommodate.