School officials check facts, explore Options

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:50

    SPARTA-Neither of the sites in Station Park designated for construction of a new high school have adequately considered recent state environmental legislation or wetlands regulations at any great length n until now. School officials are now exploring a third option n or combination of the two township-owned sites off Route 517 - that could help them sidestep state environmental issues involved in building the proposed $65-million new facility. Proponents of the much-debated school believe it will address a growing student population and overcrowded classrooms. A select group of school board members met early this week with the township council to discuss the environmental feasibility of the Station Park sites. The properties in question are located behind the current high school and overlap into the park. One includes 16.4 acres in the northeast section of the park that encroaches on two ball fields. The township council offered this land at its June 14 meeting along with a second option, 11.5 acres in a nearby area of the park that would not impact on any of the athletic fields. The council prefers to not have any of the ball fields affected. Sparta school officials are now reviewing all the information -- who has it, who needs to have it, and when it should be disseminated -- as their pursuit of land to build the new high school continues into the summer. Paul Johnson, who met with fellow school board members Richard Sullivan and Jonathan Rush, said an afternoon meeting with the township council, members of the planning board, and engineers was aimed at getting the representative experts together to consider everyone's options and all possibilities. "I haven't been happy with the clarity of information given to board members in the past," said Johnson. The unscheduled meeting did not include schools superintendent Thomas Morton, who was not invited to attend. "We thought it was best to have the smallest discussion group possible," said Michael Schiavoni, a newly elected member of the school board. "Our strategy was not to involve the most senior people." Following the meeting with the township council, the school board met in closed session that night to discuss the possible change in location for the high school construction. "The complexity of wetlands and Highlands can drive you crazy because even the experts can disagree on it," said Schiavoni. "We want to reach a common understanding so that we make no mistakes and no wrong assumptions as to where the building can be built." Schiavoni said the school board was not prepared to "go public" with what was discussed at the closed meeting. School board president David Slavin did not return a phone message. After some behind-the-scenes maneuvering, the board of education was able to finally submit an application two weeks ago for up to $15 million in state funding to assist in building the school. Morton said the Department of Education approval process could take at least six months. Morton said that before accepting an application for a new school, the state must approve a "Land Acquisition Application" from the district. All applicants must meet requirements related to wetlands, appropriateness of use, soil conditions, water supply and sewage. "I think there is some land in Station Park, but I'm not sure it's useable," said Morton. "The school board needs to talk about the land options with the architects and the Department of Environmental Protection Agency." The board of education most recently had intended to build the high school on township-owned property off White Lake Road. The township council agreed to a November referendum that would ask Sparta residents whether they wanted to leave open the possibility to build the new high school on the 59.7 acres of land about a ¼ mile behind the Sparta Car Wash off Route 15. If voters pass the measure, they would face a second referendum in December asking them to approve funding for construction. Morton had insisted that separate referendums in November and December would eliminate any chance for the district to receive state aid for construction. The planning board had recommended that the council reject the school board's request to put the White Lake property - purchased with tax funds in 2001 and designated for open space or use as recreational fields — up for public referendum. In April, proponents of acquiring the White Lake property for a new school had presented the township council with a 1,154-signature petition. Sparta education officials project that in September, about 370 former eighth-graders will replace this past year's high school class of some 220 seniors. Even taking into account the average annual student attrition from eighth to ninth grade, an additional 150 freshman will fill an already burdened high school, Morton said. The new school has escalated to a cost of $65 million, not the $53 million originally projected almost a year ago, said Morton.