School officials present conterposal as deadline looms

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:49

    SPARTA-The board of education, staring at a deadline less than a week a way, has not formalized an appropriate course of action for applying to the state for funding to build a new high school on township-owned property off White Lake Road, said Thomas Morton, superintendent of the Sparta Schools District. The board of education will hold an emergency closed-door session Thursday night to debate an 11-point resolution signed two weeks ago by the township council that will ask Sparta residents in a November referendum whether they want to leave open the possibility to build a new $65 million school on 59.7 acres of land about a ¼ mile behind the Sparta Car Wash off Route 15. Morton said the board of education had met for close to three hours Monday night after forwarding late last week a counterproposal to the council for addressing the township's increasing student population and overcrowded schools. Morton said the board was still awaiting a reply from the township council. "I don't want to hear why it can't get done anymore," said Morton. "I don't know how the two sides are going to get this done. It seems to me that since September 2003, something could have been worked out, but it hasn't. If they were working on this together, it could be worked out." An angry and frustrated Morton left open the door that the board might fail to submit an application with the Department of Education before the June 13 deadline. "It has to be a board of education decision," said Morton, who is a non-voting member of the nine-person group. "My hope is that the board realizes that they have to do something and move forward. I hope for God's sake that's the case." Morton said he had not spoken with Sparta Mayor Scott Seelagy since a few days before the resolution was approved by the council. However, Morton acknowledged that school board president David Slavin has been speaking with the mayor in a "last ditch" attempt to mediate sticking points in the resolution before an application could be submitted for the nearly $15 million in state aid to build the much-debated facility which carries a cost that increases which each passing delay. The referendum will allow voters to choose the township-owned White Lake Road property as a site for the new high school. If voters pass the measure, they will face a second referendum in December asking them to approve funding for construction. Morton has insisted that separate referendums in November and December would eliminate any chance for the district to receive state aid for construction. Morton said he had told this to the mayor prior to passage of the resolution. Sparta Mayor Scott Seelagy said he has been told by state officials that the school board would be given full consideration for state aid if it applied before June 13 -- with or without control of the White Lake property -- and held a December referendum to build the new high school. Morton said he has been trying to seek clarification for more than two weeks from the state on whether there was an option for the district to apply for state aid without a "definitive" site for the new facility. "The aggravating thing is we're trying to get answers from these people, both locally and regionally," said Morton. "I'm beyond frustration." Morton conceded that schools across the state are also jockeying for position for the state funding, making the task much more difficult and critical as well. Morton said the board also wants to find out if the council can prevent transfer of the White Lake property if the school district is unable to secure state funding for the new high school. According Morton, 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. The planning board had recommended 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 council with a 1,154-signature petition. Sparta education officials project that in September, 370 current eighth-graders will replace this year's high school class of 220 seniors. Even taking into account the average annual student attrition from eighth to ninth grade, an additional 140 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, Morton said almost two month ago.