Sparta voters vent frustrations in school elections

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:47

    SPARTA-Sparta residents vented their frustrations out in response to the township's inability to adequately address overcrowding in K-12 schools by failing to re-elect three incumbents to the school board this week while approving a 2,838,910 increase in school operating costs. The three new members elected to fill the three, three-year seats have no prior experience as elected officials in an educational capacity. Still voters cast their votes overwhelmingly for Richard Sullivan, 44, a six-year resident in the district and owner of a transportation logistics company in Sparta for 14 years; Michael R. Schiavoni, 62, a human resources consultant who has lived in the district for 10 years and chaired the township's community facilities task force looking into enrollment; and Jonathan J. Rush, 47, an eight-year resident and career firefighter in Hudson County. Richard Finkle, 44, a former vice president and seven-year member of the board; Gunter Frauenpreis, 46, a longtime Sparta resident who was finishing his first term in office; and Ilene Markey-Hallack, 43, a Sparta resident for the past 12 years and two-term official, were soundly defeated by up to 500 votes or more. The Sparta Schools District will enter 2005-2006 with a $46,550 budget compared to $43,611,678 last year. The tax levy will increase to $38,988,914 or $1.62 per $100 of assessed property value compared to $1.55 per $100 in 2004-2005. The school tax on a home assessed at the township average of $300,000 will be $4,860, up 4.5 percent from last year's budget. Sparta Superintendent of Schools Thomas Morton has said the district plans to eliminate a music instructor position, two speech teachers, and one mid-level administrative employee in answer to another year without an increase in funding from the state. The music teacher is retiring and the position will not be filled. "We're not cutting any programs at all," said Morton. "We're looking at delivering things in a different way. It just costs more to deliver the same program." Under acting Gov. Richard Codey's budget proposal earlier this year, Sparta and a vast majority of other schools will not get additional help from Trenton, making it three out of four years without an increase. All but the state's 31 neediest districts will get the same state aid as last year. Almost $300 million of the governor's education budget is in fixed teacher pension and retirement costs, and already designated construction. Schools officials in Sparta said 82 percent of the township's education costs are tied up in personnel salaries and benefits. Sparta education officials believe the district will feel even more strain under new state-imposed spending limits that were pushed through the Assembly in the final year of Gov. James E. McGreevey's administration. The "cap" legislation (S-1701) or "big squeeze" as school officials refer to it, significantly restricts both how and the amount communities can spend to educate their children. The new law requires school districts to reduce their maximum school budget surplus to 3 percent in 2004-2005 and to 2 percent in 2005-2006, and requires the excess surplus to be used for property tax relief. Morton said Sparta's cost per pupil is almost $600 below the state average. Sparta education officials say the district is already trying to cope with enrollment numbers that are spiraling out of control. Since the school year began in September, the enrollment at Sparta High School, which is already beyond capacity at 1,104, has increased by 54 unexpected students. Officials project that this year's high school class of 240 senior students will be replaced by 370 current eighth-graders.