Sparta officials not sold on high school price tag, seek second opinion

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:51

    SPARTA-Before they can begin to sell township residents on the cost to build a new high school, some board of education members believe they have to be sold on the price tag themselves. Earlier this week the school board passed a resolution to seek out local experts for a second opinion on the costs involved in building the proposed new high school that officials hope would solve overcrowded classrooms and an increasing student population in the township. School board member Paul Johnson has witnessed the cost estimates escalate from $53 million to the current figure of more than $90 million since the project first surfaced about two years ago. "The numbers are way beyond what I had expected," he said. "I'm not comfortable that I can look at these numbers and base a decision on them." Johnson said he would like local experts to volunteer their time and expertise to review and critique some of the estimates already presented by the architectural firm under contract to the school district. Johnson cited building size and the square-footage needed to accommodate 1,500 additional students, parking, paving, site preparation and contingency costs. "I realize that these numbers come from our architect and we should be relying on them n just not unquestioningly," he said. "I look at these figures and they seem to be a little raw. There are people in the community who aren't potential bidders who might be asked to look at these estimates as a sanity check. " School board member Richard Sullivan said cost estimates for updating the district's Long Range Facilities plan, which range from $20,000-$60,000, reinforce the need to take another look at any numbers presented to the community. "We've all suffered a little sticker shock," he said. "We just need to qualify some of the numbers that we've been presented with." Meanwhile, some community members continue to question the need to purchase a new facility at all, despite the board's long, dogged search for land to build the high school. Deputy mayor Wayne Ring contends that expanding and renovating existing facilities would solve the school district's woes at a reduced cost of $37-$40 million. But the councilman admitted his proposal fails to consider state wetlands and Highlands legislation that had pushed the price of similar suggestions submitted months ago to around $67 million. "I recognize there's a problem and I want to solve it now," said Ring, who served on the Community Task Force that first began looking at a new high school about two years ago. "I think these solutions can solve the problems without bankrupting the taxpayer." That fact is not lost on school officials who will be faced with the task of asking residents to dig deep into their pockets to support a construction referendum in November. Earlier this month state education officials warned suburban school districts like Sparta not to count on millions in construction funds that lawmakers had promised to soften new building costs. Instead, the Department of Education urged district officials to seek either of two funding options in an effort to gain taxpayers' support in construction referendums scheduled for the fall. The most attractive formula remains an upfront grant from the state, which Sparta seems highly unlikely to secure. Local education officials were hoping for up to $15 million in state aid n or about 20 percent of the project n toward their plans to build a new school off Route 517. Sparta educators, in all likelihood, will now have 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, who spearheaded the push for a new high school, 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 construction is completed. But some school officials are already looking beyond the referendum in November and refocusing their attention toward rebuilding momentum for the project. Kevin Pollison, a former task force member, said efforts should be redirected toward fixing the enrollment problem and less on a building a new high school. "We just talk about this high school, but there is so much more to it," said Joananne Bachmann. "This was to be a learning facility that would fix the rest of the problems." Morton said the goal of a new building remains to provide for curricula redesign and space for additional students throughout the district. He said assistant superintendent Kathleen Monks has met with the school architects to tailor the facility to fit educational programs. But school officials have yet to solidify a site for the proposed high school to be built on. Morton said 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. Johnson hopes to accelerate the review by bringing state Sen. Robert Littell (R-24) into the DEP discussion process. The land currently under consideration comprises soccer fields No. 1 and No. 2 in Station Park, and the high school's softball fields, but could be subject to the state Highlands Preservation Act and wetlands regulations.