Sparta nears a decision about its education

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:51

    SPARTA-After months of speculation and misinformation, Sparta education officials may finally have something firm to build on. According to architectural estimates recently obtained by the board of education, 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. 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 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 the Department of Environmental Protection. The omissions eliminate any chance that the sites could be included as choices in a much-talked-about December referendum. Architects estimate that the second Station Park site would total more than $88.6 million, just less than the projected $93.8 million for the White Lake Road location. All three sites present problems for Sparta school officials, most notably parking, available land to build on, and environmental regulations. "There will be no more questions of what the numbers are," said Thomas Morton, Sparta schools superintendent. "This is what it is. People will have to decide if they want to spend that kind of money." But school officials are already be looking past a December referendum and well into next year before putting plans to build a new high school up for a taxpayer vote. "I still need to have a school," said Morton. "The town council and the board of education will have to make the decision. I don't vote on either body." The school board, which held another unscheduled meeting this week, intends to ask local experts to volunteer second opinions on the costs involved in building the proposed new high school that they hope will address overcrowded classrooms and a growing student population. Cost estimates have circulated from $53 million to the current figure of more than $90 million since the project first surfaced about two years ago. But Morton said the most modest projections failed to include added expenditures for contingencies such as site development, furniture, permits, and construction management among others. "I've been saying it all along; the numbers aren't much different than from day one," said Morton. "The difference is that there's no state funding. It's unfortunate that we couldn't get the state funding. Sparta officials were hoping for up to $8-15 million in construction support from the state. Officials in Trenton have said that money can no longer be counted on. School board president David Slavin said the search for land had taken much longer than expected and delayed the application process deemed critical for obtaining state aid. He blamed the delay to the fact that some of the properties currently under consideration were not available as options when the search began last summer. Meanwhile, school officials await further word from Trenton, which continues to consider Highlands Preservation Act and wetlands regulations before approving the district's application. The school board hopes to accelerate the review by bringing state Sen. Robert Littell (R-24) into the DEP discussion process. 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 due to environmental restrictions, another piece of land would 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 if voters agreed in a November referendum that would ask Sparta residents whether they wanted 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. In April, proponents for acquiring the White Lake property for a new school had presented the township council with a 1,154-signature petition. But the school district will not have site approval from the state in time for a November 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.