Sparta moves to purchase land for high school

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:17

    SPARTA-After a long, exhaustive search, Sparta school officials have finally identified a piece of land where they would like to construct a new high school. There's a slight problem, though, school officials admit. The township doesn't own the viable land and the owner of the property may not be willing to sell it -- just yet. In a special meeting of the school board this week, officials took a step toward solving this dilemma when the board of education voted unanimously to initiate negotiations to purchase part of the 203-acre tract behind the new firehouse off Woodport Road that stretches up to Route 15. If negotiations with the owner of the property, longtime resident and prominent Sussex County artist Wendy Stamer, do not result in the successful acquisition of the land, officials may initiate condemnation proceedings to seize a portion of it. School board president David Slavin said the actions "are really just the beginning of a journey, rather than an end." "It's an uphill climb," said Slavin. "Do we have a willing seller? The answer to that is no. We're looking for a win-win scenario, but we will do, as a board of education, everything that we have to do for the sake of our kids." Slavin said that Stamer knows of the board's intentions and that a letter has been mailed to the owner requesting access to the property to conduct an appraisal of the property. "It's a dogfight out there for land," said Slavin. "This was our only option left." Slavin said the school district, if necessary, would seek legal action when the "greater good to the community comes into play" to purchase the land. The legal question then becomes for how much. "We have turned over every last stone," said Slavin. "It's a last resort option once every option has been extinguished. We think we will win the battle. We hope we don't get to that point." The board is eager to get its plans for a new high school in place by the end of the year so that the township can qualify for about $15 million in state aid. The cost for building a new high school will then be put before voters in a September referendum. Slavin said the new high school is "on target" for occupancy in September 2008. Sparta officials have long been concerned about overcrowding in the township schools. Last year, 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 "More kids are coming and that will continue year after year," said Slavin, who noted that Sparta's student population had grown by more than 30 percent in the past decade. "These are flesh and blood kids. We can't stop them. We just can't accommodate what's coming down the pike." Plans call for the current 50-year-old high school to be reconfigured into an elementary school.