Sparta residents challenge township council

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:48

    SPARTA-The lines have been drawn in the sand; residents have made their positions clear. Now, all that remains to be seen is whether both sides n the School Board and Township Council n can work along those boundaries toward a solution to the problem of overcrowding in Sparta schools. The council says it is willing; the school board says it is waiting; and the residents say they will hope. The school board is requesting that the township council swap 59.7 acres of township-owned land on White Lake Road for construction of a new high school. In return for the property, the township would receive the current high school's recreational fields and the 30-acre Fellner property from the school district. Mayor Scott Seelagy said the council had not had time to discuss the measure amongst its members, but would consider the proposal in closed session. "There are a lot of laws that will have to be dealt with, but we are certainly ready to work with the board's attorneys to make this work," said Thomas Laddey, the Sparta Township attorney. "There are a lot of issues that we'll need the cooperation of the planning board and the school board attorneys." The White Lake Road land was purchased with tax funds in 2001 and designated for open space or use as recreational fields. At the township council meeting this week, proponents of the land swap presented the council with 1,054 signatures petitioning that the proposal be accepted by next week. Seelagy said any exchange of township property would have to be put before the voters in a referendum. Proponents of the swap have said the land is not subjected to state "Green Acres" restrictions and therefore applicable to a vote. "Clear the way for a referendum vote by the taxpayers so they can decide, as is their right," said Kevin Pollison, a Sparta resident, before a packed council chamber room. "We ask that together with the board of education, you (the township council) make the educational and enrichment of Sparta's children your number one priority and finally, work diligently with them, to make this happen right now." The school board and council have had a tenuous relationship -- at best -- during the past year, pointing fingers at each other for failed attempts to identify suitable land to build the proposed $53 million high school. The council was informally notified of the White Lake Road proposal at a public meeting on April 12, when Seelagy asked those in attendance the status of the school board's land search. When presented with the White Lake Road findings by Sparta resident Sandra Curran, Seelagy said that he would contact the school board for further clarification about the new developments. Word of the potential White Lake Road swap began to spread quickly through town over the past two weeks, attracting at least 75 residents on either side of the open space issue who were willing to stand in the hallways to attend the meeting this week. "It's a frightening, prospect if land gets put aside for one thing and can be changed," said Laura Newgard, a member of the Sparta Environmental Commission. "I understand the concern of the children, but this is not the piece of property that should be looked at." But Seelagy insisted he did not learn of the White Lake Road property until five days prior to the April 26 meeting, when he received a letter informing him of the school board's intentions. Yet, when confronted this week by Sparta resident Dorothy LeBeau, the mayor admitted he had not called the school board concerning White Deer Road as he had said he would at the April 12 meeting. The school board has come under criticism from some Sparta council members and a number of residents during the process of finding an appropriate site to address the township's increasing student population. Three incumbents were not re-elected among eight candidates seeking to fill three seats on the school board during elections last week. Sparta education officials project that this year's high school class of 220 senior students will be replaced by 370 current eighth-graders in September. Schools superintendent Thomas Morton said that even when the average annual student attrition from eighth to ninth grade is considered, it still means an additional 140 freshman to fill an already over-burdened high school. "This is absurd for a community that is as comfortable and as affluent as Sparta," said Manny Goldberg, a longtime Sparta resident. "The facilities represent one portion of the solution n teaching methods represent the other half. We need both halves to give us an entire solution to the problems we face." The Board of Education had first envisioned the proposed new school on a 102-acre property off Woodport Road near the center of town. Board members abandoned their pursuit earlier this year to condemn 60 acres of the property after learning its environmentally protected streams and tributaries of the Wallkill River would prohibit construction on the land. Sparta school officials then turned their attention to a quarry of land on a 500-acre property off Limecrest Road to build the new high school. Morton recently said one of the property's owners has no intention to donate the land to the school board. Morton has said any location identified will need to meet state Department of Environmental Protection regulations, which have been a stickling point for the Board of Education in the past. "We will continue to be hamstrung by the state as far as what we need to do and what we can do," said Ronald Wolf, Sparta assistant superintendent of schools for business. Meanwhile, about $12-15 million in state aid available to the township for building a new school is drying up in Trenton. In April, Morton said building the new school had escalated to cost taxpayers $65 million, not the $53 million that was originally projected almost a year ago. Once a site is finalized, the cost for building a new high school will be put before voters in a referendum. Last year, Sparta voters turned down a referendum that called for construction of a new elementary school.