School board takes another swing in high school land search

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:49

    SPARTA-The kids were playing softball on another hot, muggy night, just the way it's supposed to be in the days just before school lets out for the summer. Inside the Mohawk Avenue School, the adults were involved in a game of their own. The winners and losers n if there are to be any -- won't be determined today, next week, or maybe even next year. That's what it's come to these days in Sparta. One side takes a turn at bat, while the other watches from the sidelines and waits. And the kids play catch in the fields. One of the participants, the Sparta Board of Education, went to the plate the other night in the ninth inning, or June 13, as local residents have been told for the past 18 months, needing to hit a home run. They think they've put one over the Ungerman outfield fence. "I'm a firm believer of the superior site being in Station Park," said David Slavin, board of education president, before his team adopted a resolution to build a new high school on a township-owned section of property located off Route 517 (see story on page 1). The board of education then voted to put its faith in the Station Park location, as it did the other sites since the school district began searching for land to build a new high school. First, it was the Stamer property off Woodport Road, when the board added "eminent domain" to the community's vocabulary. "We have turned over every last stone," said Slavin back in December, before the board refocused its attention on the vacant, dust-filled Limecrest quarry. But the developers made clear the land was not up for sale or donation. And now the board of education has asked Sparta to put its trust in Station Park. The school board has gone head-to-toe with the township council. For now, the board of education believes everyone is finally on the same team. "This has come together very quickly," said councilman Douglas Martin, who three weeks ago opposed building a new high school off White Lake Road. The board of education had said this was the "superior" place to send a future generation of Sparta students. David Troast, the township planner, and Henry Underhill, the township manager, had previously told the board of education that White Lake Road was not suitable for building a high school. Underhill said as much when the search first started. The board of education listened — at first. Last month, Troast put their conclusions before a hostile crowd at an emergency meeting of the planning board. Engineers and architects hired by the school board had differing opinions though. Troast stood by his and withstood a lot of abuse. It now appears the school district engineers and architects are not standing by theirs. "We need to have the professionals get back to us as soon as possible," said Rich Sullivan, the newest member to the elected school board, the other night when presenting the new Station Park option. Something changed between now and that planning board meeting. Maybe it was the township council calling for a November referendum that would ask voters whether they want to leave open the possibility to build the high school on 59.7 acres of White Lake Road land about a quarter-mile behind the Sparta Car Wash off Route 15. No one talked about needing 60 acres Monday night. Maybe it was the behind-the-scenes-meetings among select council and board of education members that ensued; absent of Mayor Scott Seelagy, who had drafted the White Lake Road resolution that called for a public referendum. "We did not know this (Station Park) was up on the table," said school board member Paul Johnson. Or, maybe, it was the state funds, which were said to be at risk of drying up in the wake of a June 13 application deadline. "This allows us to start putting the proper paperwork together," said Slavin, sounding more like a student given an extra day to turn in a homework assignment. More will change in the coming months, including the expected $65 million price-tag to build the new high school. "At the 11th hour, they (board of education members) are now panicking," said Troast, after the planning board had voted against recommending the White Lake Road site for the proposed high school. During his presentation to the public at the Mohawk Avenue School on Monday night, Sullivan spoke about how he and a small group of Sparta officials were "elated" to come across the Station Park opportunity. "Just because you weren't involved in it doesn't mean nothing was happening," said Sullivan, explaining to a resident in the audience, a former local teacher of some 30-plus years, the board's most recent stroke of luck. Joanne Bachmann, another proponent of the new high school, summarizes minutes from council and board of education meetings that she e-mails to a list of concerned citizens. She was one of those "elated," even if she tried her best not to show it. "We're cautiously optimistic," she said of the Station Park option. "We learned there is light at the end of the tunnel." Bachmann said the school board members n Slavin, Sullivan, and Johnson among them -- were trying to do anything, if only their best. Sullivan, who admitted his business has suffered because of the added time he has spent working on the high school issue, had spent part of the morning at his first-grader's "Young Authors" class presentation at the Helen Morgan School. "We have two separate experts telling us two separate things," he said, trying to put his best face on the new proposal. "We're still not totally clear that everything that needs to be eliminated has been eliminated." Michael Schiavoni, another new board member responded: "The good news is you're going to know in 24 hour." Thomas Morton, the superintendent of schools, fiddled with the adjacent windows and curtains and tried to listen. "I do not believe that is accurate," said Johnson, brushing aside the June 13 deadline. "There's more to come as to why that will be a benefit to the park and the school system." "I can assure you that the council will vote on this,"said Councilman Martin. Some wanted to cheer when the school board passed the resolution, effectively allowing the district to wait in line like others across the state with their hands out for dwindling aid. Others struggled to ask more questions. Before the meeting, though, Troast was talking about how much he has enjoyed working in Sparta for close to a decade, how much he likes the people he has met, how unfortunate things have turned the past year. "It's sad," he said. "Look around. People are laughing at us." Eventually, the township council will have the last turn at bat. Maybe the final swings came Tuesday night when the council agreed to let the school board pursue the Station Park proposal for the new high school. Maybe they didn't. Maybe the council will need another turn at bat, while the other side watches from the sidelines and waits. And the kids play catch in the fields. "Nothing is finalized yet," said Morton.