Officials see quarry as diamond in rough

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:47

    SPARTA-Mineralogists like to think there is always something unique or special to be found in places such as the Limecrest Quarry in Sparta. Some local school board members feel the same way and hope they discovered a diamond in the ruff. Superintendent Thomas Morton confirmed this week that the school board has turned its attention to a quarry of land on the 500-acre property off Limecrest Road to build the proposed new $54 million high school. Morton said he and Ronald Wolf, Sparta school assistant superintendent for business, have initiated negotiations with the property's owner, who wants to sell the land to a residential home developer. The dusty, defunct quarry, located in the Franklin Marble belt, has been home to enough samples of corundum, graphite, galena fluorite and tremolite to excite any passing collector, but as Morton believes, the sight amounts to a thing of beauty for different reasons. "It's available," said Morton. "It's a sight that offers us a big enough piece of land that we can build a high school on and it's an opportunity for the community to get rid of an eyesore. If we can build a school on that and the developer (uses) the rest, the town would benefit by having a new school and getting rid of this ugly site." The school board has had an eye-opening experience of its own since beginning what has become an exhaustive search for a site to build a new high school to address the township's increasing student population. "This issue is not going away," said David Slavin, Sparta school board president. "It's not a board of education issue. It's a Sparta issue." Sparta officials project that this year's high school class of 220 senior students will be replaced by 370 current eighth-graders in September. Morton said that even when the average annual student attrition from eighth to ninth grade is considered, it still means an additional 140 freshman to fill an already over-burdened high school. "We have to have a seat for every one of those kids," said Slavin. "These are real kids." Morton said that lunch periods at the high school begin around 9:30 a.m. because the small cafeteria cannot accommodate all the students at one time. He said similar adjustments are made for gymnasium and library hours. "I urge everyone to tour the school," said Sparta resident Mick Curran. "It was an eye-opening experience for me." A new high school would house 1,500 students beginning in September 2008, and allow for reconfiguration of the existing 50-year-old facility into an elementary school, school officials said. "By building one structure, we're going to get two-for-one," said Slavin. "Sparta has neglected its schools for a long time. It's now time to pay the piper. The town has to face up to reality and face the issue." Last year, Sparta voters turned down a referendum that called for construction of a new elementary school. Almost 10 months ago, a committee appointed by the board recommended plans for a new high school. Morton has said any location identified for building a high school will need to meet state Department of Environmental Protection regulations. He said DEP guidelines for building on wetlands or within the Highlands preservation would restrict any reasonable expansion or new construction on the current school site. "There's no flexible way to add onto the high school," said Morton. "It just can't be done." Morton said any attempt at adding onto the existing school would force evacuation of the building for up to 2 ½ years. School board member Paul Johnson said the state restricts housing students in temporary facilities until a sight for the new high school has been approved and put in place. "We've pulled out every stop over the last couple of months," said Slavin. "If you would have told me that this would still be an issue, I would have laughed.' The board of education had first envisioned the proposed new school on a 102-acre property off Woodport Road near the center of town. School board members abandoned their pursuit earlier this year to condemn 60 acres of the property after learning its environmentally protected streams and tributaries of the Wallkill River would prohibit construction on the land. The school board had come under considerable criticism for trying to purchase the protected property through a process of eminent domain, which some Sparta council members and a number of residents saw as an intimidating attempt to gain control of the land. "The process of eminent domain has nothing to do with taking over," said Morton. "It means we would pay market price for that property. There's no take involved. It's a serious transfer of money." Morton has said the board is eager to move ahead with its plans for a new high school so that the township can qualify for about $12-15 million in state aid. Slavin has said the board has until July to finalize plans to secure funding with the state. The cost for building a new high school will then be put before voters in a referendum. "Sparta is going to need another school at some point in the future whether a referendum is passed or not," said Morton. "If every resident walked through our schools and saw how our students have to be taught, we wouldn't have to market a referendum."