SPARTA - As they wandered across wetlands and protected tributaries, past endangered species and excavated files of engineering and architectural briefings in search of land to build a new high school, Sparta school officials believe they struck gold and are willing to take extra steps to protect their treasure. Fearing departure of one of the district’s highest-ranking educators, the board of education rewarded the assistant superintendent for curriculum and staff development with a raise that will bring her annual salary on par with the existing assistant superintendent for business and above the level of administrators in other Sparta schools. The school board approved the amended salary of Kathleen Monks to $148,515, effective Nov. 1, 2005 through June 30, 2006, an increase from $136,500 when she was hired in December 2004 Sparta schools superintendent Thomas Morton said it was his belief that Monks should not be paid less than some of the principals in the district or her counterpart in the administration, Ronald Wolfe, who has been an assistant superintendent for the past 11 years. ”She has more than proven herself,” said Morton, who credited Monks with improving the standardized test scores of K-12 students in less than a year in the newly created position. “I think it’s appropriate that if you have line positions in any organization, then people up the line shouldn’t be paid less than people below the line.” Results released at the board of education meeting this week showed Sparta third- and fourth-graders to have the most marked improvement among K-12 students in test scores from a year ago. The number of third- and fourth-graders displaying partial proficiency in mathematics and language arts was reduced by up to 50 percent, while doubling in some areas for students performing at advanced proficiency levels Only 4.3 percent of the third-graders that took the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge test were found to be partially proficient in language arts compared to 12.5 percent a year ago and 8.6 percent proved advanced ability, up from 3 percent in 2004. In mathematics, third-graders limited to partial proficiency dropped from 20.7 percent in 2004 to 5.5 in 2005 In all instances, there were as many or more third- and fourth-grade students who performed proficiently in mathematics and language arts as students in other districts The vote to increase the assistant superintendent’s salary came on short notice to some school board members, who have been looking under rocks to justify construction of a proposed new high school in Station Park that would address the district’s overcrowded classrooms and growing student population Taxpayers being asked to bite the bullet on projected costs have also been debating the merits of the proposed 300,000 square-foot building, which they have seen escalate from an initial $53 million estimate to $109.1 million in about a year During recent visits to the school, board members acknowledged cramped hallways, limited classroom space, and the need for more books. Some were prompted to aggressively move forward to address the deficient high school facilities. ”I didn’t sign up to do this once a month,” said board member Michael Schiavoni, a board member who proposed that the school board meet bi-monthly to chart a course of action. “I signed up to do the job that needs to be done. My stomach is in knots about this. There are issues that we don’t have under control. I have people e-mailing me with better questions than I have answers for.” In the meantime, the board of education’s top brass has agreed to meet with school administrators to determine a timetable for more meetings. Douglas Chesnulovitch, the school board vice president, was still not sure, though, what purpose additional school board meetings would serve ”How many issues are on our plate?” he said. We don’t know what we don’t know. I’m in favor of greater activity, but not for activity’s sake.” However, school officials will continue to ponder their next move as they await for word from the state that will tell them whether or not they can continue with plans to build behind the existing high school off Route 517. The Department of Environmental Protection is at least a month overdue on the district’s application to gain exemption from Highlands legislation that governs part of the property planned for development in Station Park. ”We’re still up in the air on a site,” said Schiavoni. “We’re still up in the air on a referendum. The question is how are we going to get these issues under control? The major sticking point for the state before granting the board permission to build appears to be connecting the proposed Station Park location to the high school’s existing sewer line Township planner David Troast said DEP had changed the procedure for connecting the new high school to the sewer line, even though it runs through Station Park. He said DEP approval to connect to the sewer line could take 1-2 years. Troast said the board could gain DEP approval rather easily by moving an imaginary line to include Station Park within the sewer service area because the existing high school already meets the use requirements. The board of education had submitted a Highlands exemption application back on July 1, but the review was not initiated until two weeks later because of a communication failure by the school district to DEP. School board member Richard Sullivan said once the application was accepted for review, the DEP process would take up to 4-6 weeks. The school board is still waiting But Sullivan said the state was practicing due diligence before making any sign-offs on raw land. He said DEP has addressed everything from the presence of endangered turtles to ancient Indian remains on site and the timeframes permitting the clearance of land without disturbing bat habitats Meanwhile, the school board, by its own admission, continues to spin its wheels while the state decides the fate of the proposed new high school on land that comprises soccer fields No. 1 and No. 2 in Station Park, and the high school’s softball fields School board President David Slavin has said if DEP denies the Station Park application due to environmental restrictions, another piece of land would be pursued. But Morton has said any new site proposal would require another application with both DEP and the Department of Education, further delaying and complicating a potential referendum process ”We’ve gone on like gang busters about facilities, facilities,” said Sullivan. “We missed the referendum date. Now, we’re not doing anything about it.” Sparta officials were hoping for up to $8-15 million in construction support from the state, but the search for land had taken much longer than expected and delayed the application process deemed critical for obtaining aid, school officials have said. Morton said the goal of any new building remains to provide for curricula redesign and space for additional students throughout the district. In September, school officials reported an additional 52 high school students than the 1,180 that had been projected for the current year. Morton said enrollment at the high school for the current school year was projected to be up 100 students from last year. But he had expected that number to increase after late registrations in August. In addition, Morton said those projected numbers represented 55-65 more students than reported by professional demographers hired by the school board last year. He said if the trend continues, the high school could be above capacity by at least 300 students in 2008-2009. However, enrollments for K-4, grades 5, and 6-8 were actually down from projected numbers for this year, Monks reported. K-4 enrollments dropped 51 students from those projected, 24 in grades 5, and 22 in grades 6-8. School officials were hoping to pass a referendum in December that would allow them to construct the new high school, but the vote was abandoned. Morton said that even if the referendum would have succeeded, some plan to address the growing student population needs to be in place by the 2007-2008 school year.