Sparta going to residents for a second opinion on school

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:51

    SPARTA-They are people seen around town, at the grocery store, taking out pizza. They are architects, engineers, construction managers, and excavators. They are neighbors, and they are the local experts the district is enlisting for a second opinion on how best to build a new high school in Sparta. The board of education has asked the group of about 8-10 residents to volunteer their services and provide another opinion on the costs to build the proposed new school, figures that have ranged from $53 million when the project first surfaced two years ago to the current asking price of upward of $93 million. The team of local experts who met this week, plans to bypass the district administration and report directly to the school board. Jonathan Rush is serving as a liaison between the volunteers and the school board and the engineers and architects working on the project. "They're all very knowledgeable," said Paul Johnson, a member of the school board who first proposed the idea along with board member Richard Sullivan. "These people should be able to give us a good view into the rough estimates that the board has received." School officials believe construction of a new high school will address the township's increasing student population and overcrowded classrooms. But after months of misinformation and speculation, the school board is now looking for a second opinion concerning the project's costs estimated most recently by the district's architects and engineers. Schools superintendent Thomas Morton has said earlier projections n the most modest -- failed to include added expenditures for contingencies such as site development, radon testing and monitoring, furniture, permits, and construction management among others. "The school board is not conversant in those elements of business," said Johnson. "I may be wrong, but I'd like someone who knows more than I do to assess these numbers." According to architectural estimates obtained by the board of education in July, a 250,000 square-foot high school will cost Sparta taxpayers more than $93.6 million to build at a site in Station Park behind the current facility. "I'll be very concerned if the numbers are not valid and very concerned if they are valid," said Johnson. "If they are valid, we've got quite a mountain to climb to get a new high school." Furthermore, the school district filed an application with the Department of Environmental Protection Agency in June stating that the cost of the project will be $116 million for a 275,000 square-foot high school on site with more than 124 acres. Taxpayers may eventually choose just how much they are willing to spend on the new school. The board of education is awaiting site approval from the state so that it can put construction costs up before voters in a December referendum. Two additional sites once under consideration, one in the middle of Station Park and the other off White Lake Road, were not included in the June school board application to the Department of Education and Department of Environmental Protection. The omissions eliminate any chance that the sites could be included as choices in a much-talked-about December referendum. Sparta officials were hoping for up to $8-15 million in construction support from the state. School board president David Slavin said the search for land had taken much longer than expected and delayed the application process basically nullifying the chances of Sparta securing state aid. In the meantime, school officials await further word from Trenton, which continues to consider Highlands Preservation Act and wetlands regulations before approving the district's application. The state is reviewing land that comprises soccer fields No. 1 and No. 2 in Station Park, and the high school's softball fields. Slavin has said if DEP denies the Station Park application because of environmental restrictions, another piece of land would have to be pursued. But Morton has said any new site proposal would require another application with both DEP and DOE, further delaying and complicating the referendum process. Morton has not ruled out returning to the White Lake Road site, where the board of education had previously intended to build the high school on township-owned property. The township council had first agreed to provide the property and 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 1¼ mile behind the Sparta Car Wash off Route 15. 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. Morton said the goal of any new building remains to provide for curricula redesign and space for additional students throughout the district. 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 overcrowded high school in the fall, Morton said.