Sparta's Battlefield

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:49

    SPARTA-The board of education is requesting the township council reconsider certain points of a November referendum that will ask Sparta residents whether they want to leave open the possibility for a new high school to be built on White Lake Road. Superintendent Thomas Morton said the schools district's attorneys have reviewed the council's 11-point resolution signed last week outlining the council's position and requirements in order to proceed with the transfer of land. A counterproposal has been forwarded to the council for review. Morton said the board wants find out if the council can prevent transfer of the White Lake property if the school district is unable to secure state funding for the new high school. "There's a couple of points we can live with, and a couple of points that we can't," said Morton, who is counting days before the June 13 deadline for the district to apply for nearly $15 million in state aid to build its new facility. "But we're still going to plan ahead and do the best we can." The referendum will allow voters to choose the township-owned White Lake Road property as a site for the much-debated $65 million high school. If voters pass the measure, they will face a second referendum in December asking them to approve funding for construction on the 59.7 acres of property off Route 15, about a ¼ mile behind the Sparta Car Wash. Morton has insisted that separate referendums in November and December would eliminate any chance for the district to receive state aid for construction. Morton said he had told this to the mayor prior to last week's resolution. According to Sparta Mayor Scott Seelagy, state officials have assured him that the school board would be given full consideration for state aid if it applied before June 13 -- with or without control of the White Lake property -- and as long as it held a December referendum to build the new high school. Morton said he will continue to get clarification from the state on whether there was an option for the district to apply for state aid without a "definitive" site for the new facility. "We're trying to get to the boss' bosses to see which way we should go," said Morton. "If we sit around on this, we're not going to get answers. But we can't make the state people move any faster or the local people move any faster." Morton said the school board has scheduled to meet in executive session Monday night to discuss a possible reply from the council. According to Morton, before accepting an application for a new school, the state must approve a "Land Acquisition Application" from the district. All applicants must meet requirements related to wetlands, appropriateness of use, soil conditions, water supply and sewage. This past week, a "No Trespassing" sign was posted at the entrance to the White Lake Road property, where the school board has said it needs access to in order to move ahead with the application process. Last month, 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 of acquiring the White Lake property for a new school had presented the council with a 1,154-signature petition. Sparta education officials project that in September, 370 current eighth-graders will replace this year's high school class of 220 seniors. Even taking into account the average annual student attrition from eighth to ninth grade, an additional 140 freshman will fill an already burdened high school, Morton said. The new school has escalated to a cost of $65 million, not the $53 million originally projected almost a year ago, Morton said last month.