Stakes get higher for taxpayers

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:47

    SPARTA-The stakes surrounding Sparta's failed attempts to build a new high school get higher with each passing day. Schools superintendent Thomas Morton said this week that building the proposed new school would cost taxpayers $65 million, not the $53 million that was originally projected almost a year ago. Morton said architects have attributed the rising costs to an escalation of the price of steel and concrete in China. Morton said he understands the new figures will not sit well with residents already frustrated with high property taxes when they eventually go to the polls and vote on a referendum to construct the controversial new school. "It's going to make it tougher," he said. "I can't talk in terms of 2-3-year-old numbers. I can't do that to the citizens. It's not fair to them. I want to be honest through this whole process." Morton has said the board is eager to move ahead with its plans for a new high school so that the township can qualify for about $12-15 million in state aid, which would allow for total cost of the school to be somewhere near $80 million. "Any community or school district is foolish for not taking advantage of that money now," said Morton. "Shame on them. If you have a project and any anticipation of doing it, you better do it now because time is running out." The funds are being allocated from the largest school construction program in state history, which was approved by lawmakers five years ago as an answer to a state Supreme Court ruling to repair and build schools in New Jersey's 31 poorest districts. Under the plan, the legislators set aside $6 billion to pay for the costs in the mostly urban areas, or Abbott districts, named after the court ruling. But the bill's sponsors added on $2.5 billion for the remaining 518 districts in a political compromise designed to sway lawmakers from middle-class and wealthy districts. When the deal was struck, the state agreed to pick up 40 percent of the construction costs in those districts if local voters, like those in Sparta, would account for the remaining expenditures. With two-thirds of the suburban money spent or already committed, state officials predicted earlier this month that the $8.6 billion fund would dry up by early next year. "Time is ticking," said Ronald Wolf, assistant superintendent for business for Sparta schools. "We've got to get plans for the new school down to Trenton." David Slavin, Sparta school board president, has said the board has until July to finalize plans to secure funding with the state. The cost for building a new high school will then be put before voters in a referendum. Districts categorized as wealthy by the state may still find the prospect of a sizeable allocation for building plans insufficient to overcome the will of the voters. Wolf said the district takes issue with the state's designation because it uses a socioeconomic formula that unfairly incorporates property value with income. "We think the system is flawed," said Wolf. "Districts like Sparta come out on the short end of the stick." Meanwhile, despite published reports, Sparta school officials continue to negotiate to purchase a quarry of land on a 500-acre property off Limecrest Road to build the new high school. Morton said one of the property's owners, Eugene Mulvihill, wants to use the land for residential home development. Mulvihill's companies built Crystal Springs Resort, the Minerals Hotel, Ballyowen and six other golf courses in Sussex County. "As far as I'm concerned, we're still negotiating with Gene (Mulvihill)," said Morton. "That's still the piece of property." 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. 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. A new high school would house 1,500 students beginning in September 2008, and allow for reconfiguration of the existing 50-year-old facility into an elementary school, education officials said. "We have overcrowded schools and a growing enrollment," said Wolf. "We can't make due with what we have. It will only get worse." Last year, Sparta voters turned down a referendum that called for construction of a new elementary school. Almost 10 months ago, a committee appointed by the board recommended plans for a new high school.