Officials to discuss White Lake Road site for high school

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:48

    SPARTA-After a long, exhaustive search to find a site to build a new high school, Sparta education officials are back to where they started. Superintendent of Schools Thomas Morton now admits that the property on White Lake Road had been their first choice when they began planning for a new school some 10 months ago, but were "told directly" by the township that the land could not be used because of state regulations prohibiting new development. But school officials were expected to ask again when they met Thursday night with representatives from the township including the mayor, manager, and attorney behind closed doors to discuss what could be a last-ditch solution to the problem of overcrowding in Sparta schools. Morton said the school board would request 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 Fellner property from the school district. 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. 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. "The board of education is looking for the council to let the people decide," said Morton. "The township doesn't own the land. The township and the mayor are just the keepers. The people own the land. Let the people decide n the taxpayers." Mayor Scott Seelagy has said the township is willing to consider the proposal, but any exchange of property would have to be put before the voters in a referendum. Up until now, there had not been any formal meetings between the township and education officials to discuss the White Lake Road swap. "It's a no-lose situation for the council and the mayor to make the referendum happen," said Morton. "If in fact the mayor is right and the referendum won't be supported, he'll be the winner because the land will remain open space. If the mayor is wrong in his assessment and over 50 percent of the voters choose that they want a new high school, he becomes a winner because he allowed the referendum to happen." Morton said the school board will meet in closed session to discuss then next appropriate action to take based on its meeting with township officials. "Beyond being the best piece of land to build a school on, it won't cost the taxpayers another cent," said Morton. Attorneys for the township have said there were many legal obstacles to overcome before the land swap could be finalized. "I believed the town officials were telling me the truth," said Morton. "Most people would believe that. But when we did more digging, we found out there were more ways than one to have it done." At the township council meeting last week, proponents of the land swap presented the council with 1,554 signatures petitioning that the proposal be accepted. "I think the public is telling the township to strongly do it," said Morton. "If the town makes this land available for public vote, it will be of the people's will to make it happen." 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. Sparta education officials project that this year's high school class of 220 senior students will be replaced by 370 current eighth-graders in September. Morton has 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. The Board of Education had once envisioned the proposed new school on a 102-acre property off Woodport Road near the center of town. 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. Sparta school officials then turned their attention to a quarry of land on a 500-acre property off Limecrest Road to build the new high school. Morton recently said one of the property's owners has no intention to donate the land to the school board, but instead will use the property to develop residential housing. 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, and the cost of building a new facility in Sparta is increasing. 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.