Taxpayers form watchdog group to force the council's and board's hands

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:49

    SPARTA-Frustrated by the "parochial" attitudes of both the township council and the board of education, a group of concerned citizens is taking matters into their own hands. The newly established Sparta Alliance for Responsible Government has issued a position paper ( See Page 39) that calls for township and board of education officials to immediately form a working task force that will allow taxpayers to have input into whether a new high school should be built and where. The position paper claims "neither the town nor the board of education has risen to the occasion" to enter into a meaningful dialogue to solve the issue of overcrowded schools in Sparta. First, though, the alliance is calling for the board of education to complete the application for state aid to build a proposed new high school by the June 13 Department of Education deadline. The group then wants the task force to identify and pursue the best parcel of land within the township for the board of education to complete its proposal for a new high school for taxpayer consideration. "The mission of the alliance is to have a forum to try and educate the taxpayers on a factual basis rather a pro-school or anti-school basis," said Jeannie Phillips, a Sparta attorney specializing in real estate law, who helped form the alliance. "We're hoping this becomes a longstanding citizens group that intends to critically assess and provide fact-based information to the public on the major activities of elected officials." Phillips said she has voted against the school referendum in the past because of issues regarding school construction. She said she hopes to bring a different point of view to the proposed high school discussion. "I do believe there's a need any time a taxpayer is going to go into the voting booth to have a mechanism where questions can be asked or answers can be given," said Phillips, who has two daughters, a 29-year-old and a fifth-grader who will enter the Mohawk Avenue School in September. "We as taxpayers have a responsibility to become educated on the issues." The alliance is also asking that the township provide a complete copy of the open space plan, a list of properties acquired under the ordinance, how each was financed, the current disposition of each parcel acquired, and a list of property under consideration for acquisition along with the current owner and estimated costs. According to the alliance, the board of education should then revisit and aggressively challenge its capital improvement plan and associated land requirements, especially the need for a 60-acre parcel to build the proposed $65 million high school. The position paper objects to the town's proposal to not only sell the White Lake property, but at a fair market value. Phillips said this suggestion "that taxpayers should pay for property twice" would substantially add to the debt burden of the November referendum. "My hope is that the voters are at least asking questions and asking for answers," said Phillips. "Even if they don't like the answers to the questions, they can vote accordingly." Phillips said the alliance also objects to the board of education being subjected to any resolutions and conditions levied on it by the Sparta Planning Board concerning development of the site. She said such a condition is not only inconsistent with state law governing the supervision of school construction, but also is a recipe for open-ended, costly delaying bureaucratic intrusion by the township. The alliance also requests that the board of education be required to blanket indemnify the township of any legal and administration expenses it would incur defending any challenges along the way. "We're willing to work to get the facts out," said Phillips. "The silver lining is that both the township council and board of education with alliance involvement will be put on a different level of accountability than they have been put on in the past."