School officials await decision

| 28 Sep 2011 | 03:02

    SPARTA - Sparta school officials are cautiously keeping their collective fingers crossed while awaiting a decision from the state that will tell them whether or not they can continue with plans to build a new high school in Station Park. Schools superintendent Thomas Morton said he anticipates “something in writing” from the state Department of Environmental Protection by Dec. 1 concerning the district’s application to gain exemption from Highlands legislation that governs part of the property behind the existing high school off Route 517. Despite meeting with representatives from the state Division of Watershed Management two weeks ago to discuss the school district’s application, Morton was reluctant to give a thumbs up without receiving an official interpretation on some of the recently enacted legislation that inhibits development of the proposed property. Meanwhile, as the board of education prepares to meet Monday to contemplate its options in light of the anticipated state decision, the township council is taking a wait-and-see-approach to the project. “We’re committed depending what the state says,” said mayor Alish Hambel. “It’s the people who will have to decide if they want to pay for that building.” Taxpayers may be asked to carry the burden of a 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. The controversial project has been a source of debate that carried into this week’s election for the open seat on the township council. In may be interpreted by some as a preliminary referendum on a proposed school, Sparta voters sent a word of caution to the school board by electing Jerry Murphy to fill the vacant seat on the township council. Murphy, who campaigned against building a new school, soundly defeated Kevin Pollison, a starch proponent behind a new facility. Prior to the election, the school board drew both praise and criticism for rewarding one of the district’s highest-ranking educators with a raise. The decision made at a an open public meeting amended the annual salary of the assistant superintendent for curriculum and staff development, to $148,515, an increase of $23, 515 pro-rated from when she was hired in December 2004. Morton, who feared losing the Pennsylvania resident to another New Jersey school district, has credited Kathleen Monks with improving the standardized test scores of K-12 students in less than a year on the job. “In New Jersey, we’ve all been taxed to such a great extent,” said Hambel. “All of us have to come down to earth and realize all of us can only afford so much in taxes. I believe in education and would love to see the planing board and board of education focus on the things that can happen rather than what can’t happen.” The major sticking point for the state before granting the school board permission to build appears to be connecting the proposed Station Park location to the high school’s existing sewer line. School officials are hoping to build the new school on land that comprises township soccer fields No. 1 and No. 2 in Station Park, and the high school’s softball fields in an effort to address overcrowded classrooms and a growing student population in the district. Morton said 1,180 students were projected to attend the high school this academic year, the highest enrollment dating back to 1974. However, residents opposed to building a new school, including councilman-elect Murphy, believe the recent enrollment statistics are equivalent to levels recorded during the 1970s. According to statistics released by the schools district, the existing high school averaged 1,040 students in grades 9-12 each year from 1974-1981, topping out at 1,072 in 1980. Morton said those figures do not take into account split sessions, but the schools superintendent said he wasn’t aware of any official records to support when or if an abbreviated school schedule was ever implemented. Pollison, a member of the now-disbanded Community Facilities Task Force, which first addressed overcrowded classrooms almost two years ago, said he was unaware of any split sessions when he began classes at the high school in 1974. After classes commenced in September, school officials reported additional 52 students had enrolled from the 1,180 that had been projected for the current year. Morton said the enrollment at the high school this year was already projected to be up 100 students from last year. He said those projected numbers represented 55-65 more students than professional demographers hired by the school board had predicted last year. Morton said if the current enrollment trends continue 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 are actually down from the projected numbers for this year, said Monks. K-4 enrollments dropped 51 students from those projected 24 in grades 5, and 22 in grades 6-8. During the summer, Morton had put forth a plan that would have created split sessions for grades six through nine to open up more classroom space district-wide, but the school board’s curriculum committee rejected the proposal. School officials were hoping to pass a referendum next month that would allow them to construct the new high school at upwards of $93 million, but the vote was abandoned. Morton said that 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.