Price tag rises on proposed new high school

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:50

    SPARTA-With each passing day, Sparta officials hoping to build a new high school in the township are finding themselves in a hole that may be too deep to dig out of. School board president David Slavin said the cost of just excavating a portion of Station Park to construct the proposed facility would be much more expensive than had been anticipated when the township council offered the site off Route 517 nearly a month ago. Slavin said the cost of building a new school had now escalated to somewhere between $80 and $90 million, depending on which area in Station Park is selected for the new facility. To make things worse, according to Slavin, even the $15 million in state aid the municipality expected to secure are now in question. "We're just being realistic about it," he said. "It looks like it's not out there." Although the state has not given official word on the grant application, Slavin said that there is now $500 million missing from a construction coffer that had been as high as $600 million in August 2004. Even if the money was available, school board member Paul Johnson said other districts scheduled to hold construction referendums in September are further along in line for state funds than Sparta, which will hold a vote in December. The state dictates which months a school referendum can be held based on when an application for construction is submitted to the Department of Education. Meanwhile, the board of education is continuing to work with architects to develop a design and cost estimate for the new school in Station Park. Slavin said that other sites are still being considered to address the increasing student population and overcrowded classrooms. "The need is not going to go away," he said. "All the alternatives we've looked at are not pretty. Unfortunately, the kids are still coming." Slavin conceded that the search for land had taken much longer than expected and unforeseen delays may have cost the district significant state funding. He said it was unfortunate that some of the properties currently under consideration were not available as options when the search began last summer. The land most prominently under consideration, which comprises soccer fields No. 1 and No. 2 in Station Park, and the high school's softball fields, could be subject to the state Highlands Preservation Act and wetlands regulations. The board of education has already submitted an initial application to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and is awaiting a determination. If DEP denies the application due to environmental restrictions, the board will have to pursue another piece of land, said Slavin. Schools superintendent Thomas Morton has not ruled out returning to the White Lake Road site where the board of education had previously intended to build the high school on township-owned property. The township council had agreed to provide the property and a November referendum that would ask Sparta residents whether they wanted to leave open the possibility to build the new high school on the 59.7 acres of land about a ¼ mile behind the Sparta Car Wash off Route 15. The planning board had recommended the council reject the school board's request to put the White Lake property — purchased with tax funds in 2001 and designated for open space or use as recreational fields — up for public referendum. In April, proponents for acquiring the White Lake property for a new school had presented the township council with a 1,154-signature petition. Sparta education officials project that in September, about 370 former eighth-graders will replace this past year's high school class of some 220 seniors. Even taking into account the average annual student attrition from eighth to ninth grade, an additional 150 freshman will fill an already burdened high school in the fall, Morton said. The new school was originally projected to cost $53 million when the pursuit of land began a year ago, said Morton.