Sparta officials weigh split sessions for high school

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:51

    SPARTA-A school board committee has rejected a proposal that recommended split sessions to address overcrowded classrooms and an increasing student population in the district. Schools superintendent Thomas Morton put forth the plan that would create split sessions for grades six through nine before the school board's curriculum committee last week. The plan called for grades 8-9 to attend morning classes and grades 6-7 attend sessions in the afternoon. School officials are hoping to pass a referendum in December that would allow them to construct a new high school with a price tag of some $93 million. Morton said that even if the referendum succeeds, a plan needs to be in place by the 2007-2008 school year. "The problem is here and we have to find a way to deal with it," said Morton, who developed the proposal after conferring with assistant superintendent Kathleen Monks. "It's our opinion that we will not have facilities in time to resolve the problem. Not having a referendum passed will only exacerbate the problem. We will have to take some dramatic action." Morton said the proposal doesn't address increasing enrollments in grades K-5, core curriculum standards, extracurricular activities, transportation costs and the parental impact on keeping kids home. The committee also rejected a second proposal to implement online courses for high school students in grades 11-12. Morton said this proposal would reduce high school attendance by 25 percent on any given day. However, the superintendent admitted that not all students are mature enough to succeed under these conditions. "This problem is inevitable," said school board member Richard Sullivan. "We have to consider which classes get displaced and where they are displaced to." Morton ruled out Sussex County Vo-Tech as an option because of limited space at that campus. He also said Sussex County Community College was expanding at a rate that would not permit overflow space be set aside for Sparta students. "We're going to have to deal with this," said school board member Jonathan Rush. "The question is, how long?" Morton said enrollment at the high school for the upcoming school year is at 1,180, up 100 students from last year. He expects that number to increase after late registrations are received in the remainder of the month. In addition, Morton said the numbers represent 55-65 more students than reported by professional demographers hired by the school board last year. If the trend continues, he said, the high school could be above capacity by at least 300 students in 2008-2009. Meanwhile, the school board continues to wait for word from the state on an application to build the new high school at a site in Station Park behind the existing facility. The school board met in at some times heated discussion for close to four hours this week. Many members left the meeting shaking their heads, questioning the timing and contents of the application to construct a new high school, the costs proposed by engineers and architects, and what direction to proceed. "The public is seeing what goes on here," said Rush. "We've been going around in circles and nothing has been resolved." The school board wants to speed up the state approval process, but was disappointed to learn that a request to meet with officials to discuss wetlands concerns was only submitted by the professional architects last week. "This has been an example of whatever can go wrong, will go wrong," said school board member Michael Schiavoni. 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. School board members are now questioning the validity of those figures and have assembled a group of local volunteer experts to review those proposed costs. 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 more than 124 acres. 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 the December referendum. Sparta officials were hoping for up to $8-15 million in construction support from the state, but the search for land had taken much longer than expected and delayed the application process critical for obtaining aid, school officials have said. 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 state is reviewing land that comprises soccer fields No. 1 and No. 2 in Station Park, and the high school's softball fields. School board president David 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. Slavin reminded board members that despite negotiations for property in Station Park, the White Lake site is the only offer from the township council that currently sits on the table. 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. However, the school board must satisfy a list of 11 issues to the township council by next week in order for the site to remain an option. The township council has 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 Route 15. The planning board opposes putting 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.