School officials set in motion procedures to aquire site or force sale

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:18

    SPARTA-Before he did anything else, David Slavin, like most Sparta residents, knew he had to take out the trash before the night was over. It was already 10 p.m. and the school board president had just returned home from a long, closed-session meeting. Members were fine-tuning plans, moving step-by-step toward creating a new high school in Sparta, the first in the township in some 50 years. "It's a lot of work," Slavin told The Sparta Independent. "We want the best package for Sparta, the best high school. New schools don't just appear." But, today, there is a vision, Slavin believes, one he and other school board members have set their sights on. Just last week, the board began official negotiations to purchase part of a 203-acre tract behind the new firehouse off Woodport Road that stretches up to Route 15. It is where they would like to build the new high school to accommodate the township's growing student population. "Everybody loves the property," said Thomas Morton, Sparta schools superintendent. "Now, the problem is the owner hasn't been willing to sell it." But Slavin said the problem is not without a solution A certified letter was delivered last week to Wendy Stamer, longtime Sussex County resident and owner of the property, stating the board's intentions to purchase the land. "They (the Stamers) are being wonderful," said Slavin. "I can't say enough about the family. We're sensitive to their needs." If negotiations with Stamer do not result in successful acquisition of the land, school officials said they may initiate condemnation proceedings to seize a portion of the property. Morton said negotiations with the family are ongoing, but the township has run out of options. "This has got to work," he said. "We need schools. It's as simple as that. There are more children than spaces. Our enrollment is beyond capacity and it's going to grow significantly." Sparta officials project that this year's high school class of 240 senior students will be replaced by 370 current eighth-graders. Slavin said the Stamers had 10 days upon receipt of the certified letter to respond to the board's intentions before the township would begin to have the land appraised for sale. He said he expects to have an appraisal in place by Jan. 1. The idea of forcing the landowners to sell their property has proven controversial with some residents. "It concerns me that law-abiding, tax paying citizens can be ‘strong-armed' by the school board to relinquish land against their will," reads in part a letter to the rditor send to this newspaper by Sparta resident Patrick Dooley In another letter, Alan G. Vonderahe of Sparta also expressed his disapproval of the board's tactics. "The board is apparently willing to resort to the tactics of a schoolyard bully; trampling the rights of the individual, wresting away by force whatever it wants, and justifying the means by the end," said Vonderahe in his letter. Slavin said the board is eager to move ahead with its plans for the new high school so that the township can qualify for about $12-15 million in state aid. He said the board has until July to finalize plans to secure funding with the state. "The window of opportunity is still there," said Slavin. "If we follow our timeline, that money will still be available." The cost for building a new high school will then be put before voters in a September referendum. Slavin said, if approved, the new high school would be "on target" for occupancy in September 2008. "It's a tough decision," said Slavin. "But, most folks agree we need a new high school. Sometimes you have to make hard decisions when you make the right decisions." Last year, Sparta voters turned down a referendum that called for construction of a new elementary school. In June, a committee appointed by the board recommended plans for a new $53.9 million high school Plans call for the current 50-year-old high school to be reconfigured into an elementary school. Sparta officials said the district currently has 3,985 students and that next year enrollment is expected to be 4,110. By the 2008-2009 school year, that number is projected to grow to 4,477, almost 1,000 students more than current building capacities.