School math gives alarming answers

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:47

    SPARTA-The Board of Education approved the adoption a new "Mathematics" textbook next year for grades K-5 at a meeting this week. And while the new books may challenge Sparta children with new figures to ponder, there remains no easy formula for solving the township's failed attempts at building a new high school. New math; same addition; it really doesn't seem to matter. For some residents the numbers keep getting more frightening, more alarming with each new declaration. Ask school's superintendent Thomas Morton, who all but laid to rest any debate among Sparta residents about the possibility of renovating or adding onto the existing high school to address the township's overcrowded classrooms. Morton said any such plans would cost taxpayers nearly $67 million to reach fruition. "My concern is the cost is prohibitive to do this work," said Morton. "It's far more than I thought the cost would ever be and it only takes care of one-half of the problem." Morton said the $67 million proposal provided by the Trenton-based Spiezle Architectural Group doesn't take into consideration an additional $30 million that would be needed to build a new elementary school to tackle the growing K-5 student population lurking in town. Sparta education officials have always boasted that 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. "By building one structure, we're going to get two-for-one," David Slavin, school board president, has said. "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." Now, Sparta officials concede there may be no other choice. Morton said he was willing to accept blame for not pushing the architectural firm to submit conceptual drawings and spread sheets outlining costs from the three-month study sooner for public consumption. The proposed additions to the existing high school called for 170,000 square-feet of new space for 46 classrooms, three science labs, faculty team rooms, the auditorium, auxiliary gyms, locker rooms, and commons and cafeteria. Renovations would be made to the music room, media center, offices and art room. The Spiezle Architectural Group's proposal eliminates one-third of the existing parking spaces, reduces the acreage for athletic playing fields and would house students in temporary classroom trailers while construction is performed. The plans also encroach into the wetlands that surround the high school. "These are facts," said Slavin. "We're going to lay it on the table, but we may not like what we see. We're all in the same boat." 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. Sparta school officials continue to negotiate to purchase a quarry of land on a 500-acre property off Limecrest Road to build the new high school; although, Morton said one of the property's owners has no intention to donate the land to the school board. 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. "We will continue to be hamstrung by the state as far as what we need to do and what we can do," said Ronald Wolf, Sparta assistant superintendent of schools for business. The Board of Education had first envisioned the proposed $54 million 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. "There's no ideal piece of property out there right now," said board member Richard Finkle. "The new high school is the right solution, but we may be forced to work with what we have now." Morton said the school board is still considering about 30 other parcels of land in town to build the high school, but only about four or five are under "active research." The school board has come under criticism from some Sparta council members and a number of residents during the process of finding an appropriate site to address the township's increasing student population. Three incumbents are among eight candidates seeking to fill three seats on the school when elections are held April 19. "I'd rather vote for the devil I do not know than the devil I do,"" said Phil Seranni, a Sparta resident and middle school teacher for 37 years. "This Board of Education is the laugh of the town. We've got to come up with something better." Meanwhile, about $12-15 million in state aid available to the township for building a new school is drying up in Trenton. 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. Almost a year ago, a committee appointed by the board recommended plans for a new high school.