Sparta likely to be counted out of state schools construction funds

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:50

    SPARTA-Township residents backing a new public high school received the word they could ill afford to hear: There is no more state money left for the schools. State education officials warned suburban school districts like Sparta last week not to count on millions in construction funds that lawmakers promised. Instead, the Department of Education has urged district officials to seek alternative funding options. Sparta education officials were hoping for up to $15 million n or about 20 percent of the project n in state aid toward their plans to build a new school off Route 517. Educators now will have to scramble to seek voter approval for construction costs without the state grant. They could seek referendum approval from the voters to borrow the full cost of the school project hoping the state would cover a portion of the repayment over the next two or three decades. Sparta schools superintendent Thomas Morton said the state would be expected to kick in up to 8 percent each year once the district begins to pay off the debt after the construction of the new high school is completed. "It's real money," said Morton, who spearheaded the push for a new high school to address overcrowded classrooms and an increasing student population nearly two years ago. "But, no one wants to hear that because it will take a long time to get the money back." But the news gets gloomier for Sparta, which will not have a school construction referendum until November, some two months after most of the money has been awarded. "It's very disappointing that we lost that much money from the state," said Morton. "But whether or not we were to get a grant or debt service from the state, we still need a new building. I don't know how it will play out." The ultimate decision will be left to the voters, when they will be asked to approve a construction plan for a new high school that Sparta education officials have yet to solidify a site for. The state Department of Environmental Protection is still reviewing plans to locate the new high school in either one or two sections of Station Park, which the township council offered as a site in June after months of contentious debate with the board of education. Morton said the cost of the new building will be between $80-$90 million. He emphasized that the cost for building the high school had always been around $90 million, and not the $53 million that had been widely circulated. The superintendent admitted the $53 million estimate was an "educated guess" on construction costs alone by the task force that first began looking into a new high school a year ago. According to Morton, that figure did not include contingencies such as additional square-footage for architectural design, parking, gas testing, excavation, athletic fields, and fees and permits among others costs. Morton also noted that the cost to build a new school would probably escalate another 10 percent annually. Despite the dire fiscal forecast, Morton said the school board would move ahead with the November referendum, will continue to study temporary solutions including split sessions, online courses, and classes in the library and auditorium to address the overcrowded space constraints. "We definitely need a building," he said. "At what point will it become too absurd to keep going the way we're going n I don't know the answer. We will lay it out to the voters about what the numbers are and why they need the new school and let them decide." Top officials at the School Construction Corp. had told lawmakers in Trenton earlier in June that nearly all of the $8.6 billion set aside for an ambitious public works project n the largest in New Jersey history n had all but evaporated. The agency's managers charged with building schools in the state's poorest towns and suburban and rural districts told the Assembly Budget Committee that the plan was based on unrealistic estimates that didn't consider the high cost of buying land and restoring turn-of-the-century-old buildings in decaying urban neighborhoods. The School Construction Corp. also admitted the money was mismanaged and lacked basic procedures to keep track of almost $500 million in spiraling advertising costs, which included brochures that prominently featured former Gov. James McGreevey, who established the agency in 2002. Back then, the Supreme Court had ordered lawmakers to give the state's poorest districts the same opportunities to educate their students as those within the wealthiest boundaries. The state paid all the costs in the 31 districts covered by the court ruling, while rural and suburban districts, including Sparta, could apply for funds and obtain up to 40 percent of the construction costs. Sparta school board president David Slavin said the search for land had taken much longer than expected and delayed the application process. He said it was unfortunate that some of the properties currently under consideration were not available as options when the search began last summer. "No one's to blame," said Morton, who refused to point fingers at neither the township council nor the board of education. "All of the powers to be should have been able to come up with an agreement on a piece of land." For Sparta the search for a new home for its high school is not yet over, the land most prominently under consideration, which comprises soccer fields No. 1 and No. 2 in Station Park, and the high school's softball fields, could be subject to the state Highlands Preservation Act and wetlands regulations. The board of education submitted an initial application earlier this month to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and is awaiting a determination. If DEP denies the application due to environmental restrictions, the board will have to pursue another piece of land, said Slavin. 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.