Residents take council to task over proposed new school

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:47

    SPARTA-The room looked like an overcrowded class at the high school, which just so happened to be the subject on the minds of almost everyone in attendance at the Sparta Township Council meeting this week. Close to 100 residents showed up to ask questions, make statements and sometimes personally attack the township council in what appeared to be an organized effort to vent frustration over failed attempts to build a new high school that would hopefully solve the Sparta's growing student population dilemma. And when it was over, and the last seat had been emptied, many of those who had gathered at the Municipal Building mingled outside in the parking lot or inside in the hallways like students left dumbfounded by another exam they thought they had been so well prepared for. Some had done their homework on the school issue, calling in questions and citing examples of poor communication between the school board and township council. Others chose to transcend the debate into matters related to the proposed new school by confronting the council with questions regarding the lack of commercial ratables or the continued burden of having to pay the highest county taxes in the state. But again, this meeting, like so many others embracing the subject of classroom space lately do, provided few comforting answers for residents with a sincere and dedicated interest in the future education of the township's children. Yet again, they got another quick-study in local civics whether they wanted to hear it or not. "The council should try and communicate and work with the school board to the extent we can," said Sparta Mayor Scott Seelagy. "The difficulty is n once again n we are a separate entity. It's not within our charge to deal with the schools and those issues. The school board is doing that." Councilman James Henderson has been around Sparta for more than 35 years. He could recognize more than one face in the crowd and had no doubt about its intentions. "I think they're looking to get us involved in school board business, but they don't understand that we are two very distinct and different bodies," he said. "We have a clear mandate as to what we are supposed to do and the school board has its function."Henderson said it's up to the school board to respond to the overcrowded schools and put a plan of action before the voters. Councilman Wayne Ring said he has two young children he intends to send to public school. Like any resident, he, too, said he is frustrated, yet believes the hostility at the council meeting may have been misdirected. "Some of the comments made would have been better made at a board of education meeting," said Ring, who earlier this year served on a task force looking into building the new high school. "In terms of the school budget, the board of education prepares that. We have nothing to do with it. I wish some of these people would take some of their concerns to the school board and voice them over there. We just don't have the power in a lot of these instances." Seelagy said he received a tip earlier in the day about the possibility of a large turnout loaded for bear at the meeting. He, too, said he could sense the animosity and wound up absorbing some of the most heated exchanges. "If they have legitimate concerns in terms of our budget, in terms of spending issues, in terms of where we allocate the money that we're in charge of, those questions and concerns are certainly legitimate," he said. "There might be some frustration. But I think, at the same time, the frustration can be alleviated if all of the information concerning the high school and, specifically, the availability or non-availability of alternatives is made known to the public." Seelagy said most of the people he has spoken to want to solve overcrowding in the schools, but without any additional weight placed on taxpayers. Some residents, he said, are still not convinced that an entirely new school has to be constructed. "Most of the people that I speak to want to see some balance struck in terms of let's do something, but let's explore all the alternatives," he said. "Let's try and get the best alternative to help the school concerns that the board has talked about while not, at the same time, burdening the taxpayer so much that some people are forced to move out of town." Sparta school officials are looking at a quarry of land on a 500-acre property off Limecrest Road to build the proposed new $54 million high school. Superintendent Thomas 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. 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 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. 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, education officials said. "By building one structure, we're going to get two-for-one," said David Slavin, Sparta school board president. "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 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.