SPARTA, NJ — The joint meeting of four Sussex County boards at the McNeice auditorium at Sussex County Tech was billed as a discussion about where to locate the proposed Sussex County Community College culinary, automotive, welding and machine tools “middle skills” program.
By the end of the three and a half-hour meeting, the discussion became a Sussex Tech versus SCCC tug of war.
The college is set to purchase the former home of McGuire Chevrolet. They have Chapter 12 funding, available to county colleges for capital improvements. According to Lorraine Parker, chair of the SCCC board of trustees, the college has an additional $940,000 in pledges and $390,000 “in hand” from public and private organizations to help with costs associated with the programs being held in Newton.
In their presentation Parker and Connelly said the bonding for the project is specific to county college facility projects and the pledged donations are tied to the project happening in Newton.
“Thorlabs feels so strongly about this [Alex Cable] is willing to give nearly $500,000 for it to be in Newton,” Parker said. Newton Medical Center has also publicly pledged money to support the McGuire Campus.
“For the first time we have businesses coming to the college saying ‘look to the future’,” Freeholder Sylvia Petillo said. “I’m amazed you have all of these business owners willing to give nearly a million dollars.”
Freeholder Director, Jonathan Rose, who presided over the meeting, is in favor of putting the middle skills program on the campus of Sussex Technical School. He propose reconstructing the defunct indoor pool building to house space for the growing high school population and the college students. Freeholders George Graham and Herb Yardley support siting the program at Sussex Tech.
The meeting opened with public comment. Despite the meeting time of 9 a.m. on Thursday, 50 people were in the audience. Opinions varied on the subject of the location.
Jason Bowman, a Sussex County resident, SCCC graduate and student in a masters program at Rutgers University said “the idea of making it easier to get an education is important.” Bowman, a tow-truck driver with young children also raised the concern about having adult college students “on the campus with 14, 15, 16-year-olds. It’s not advisable.”
Bowman also said the freeholders were in violation of New Jersey state law because they have not fully funded SCCC.
Sussex Tech teacher Lisa Carlson said a “second campus should be farther away from the main campus,” pointing to Vernon, one of the largest towns in the county, located farther from Newton than Sparta.
College President Dr. Jon Connelly said having the second campus less than a mile from the main campus eliminates the need for additional administrators. Students can also attend classes on both campuses. There is public transportation to Newton that is not available to the Sparta location.
Ati Shaw, a business owner in Newton “for more than 20 years,” said the McGuire property is “aptly suited to accommodate the second campus. It is minutes from SCCC [main campus] and the donations are a wonderful gift.”
Newton Attorney Nancy Heslin Reading told the board members, the “financial picture of Sussex County families is that they are mired in the recession of 2008.” She spoke of three generations living in one home and even sharing one car.
“I have always been interested in seeing vocational training,” Reading said. “I see generations with no skills. Transportation to Tech is an issue. I encourage you to find a way to make this work on the McGuire campus.”
Another resident “in education for 52 years” told the board members to “expand the college, think ahead. The McGuire campus is already set.” He also expressed concern about mixing college and high school students on the same campus.
Brian Ward asked if “we are trying to save Newton or are we in the business of educating students.” He said Sussex Tech already teaches auto mechanics.
Parker said in her presentation, “In elementary school I studied English, math and science. In high school I studied English, math and science and in college I studied English math and science. They were the same subjects but not the same program.”
Rose, Graham and Yardly at different times asked for more financial information. Parker said they would discuss specifics in a closed session, on the advice of their attorney. She said they did not want to give out too much information in public because the project has to go out to bid and they wanted to get the best numbers from contractors.
Graham said he favored holding a referendum. Parker reminded him the bonds are already sold, the money is waiting for the project to begin.
“I’m going to talk about the elephant in the room,” Graham said. “This is a fake meeting. You already have the authorization to do it.”
SCCC Board of Trustee member Bill Curcio said, “You talk about taxpayers. We are all taxpayers. My taxes benefit the county. I don’t want to spend money in Newton but I will because it’s good for the county.”
Parker said the college is 3.6 percent of the total county budget, equating to $4,020,000. She said 85 percent of SCCC graduates remain in the county, contributing to the county.
Sussex Tech culinary teacher said he has students attending Johnson and Wales and Culinary Institute of America. “My message to the freeholders — you treat us like the red headed step child. Where’s our funding? My students can go anywhere when they graduate. Why spend all the money at the college. We are the only high school in the county with growth but no additional funding. Get the money from [businesses in the county] not the people who are busting their hump every day.”
That seemed to turn the conversation. For much of the remainder of the meeting the talk turned to funding for one school and not the other. In the second public comment section a number of Tech staff took to the microphone to express frustration at the impression that their school does not provide a thorough education with skilled and certificated staff.
Parker said it was not her intention to offend anyone and said in her presentation explained the same courses taught at different levels are different programs.
Another speaker said the college and tech have been pitted against each other. They are both funded by the same body. He urged them to “come together not to save a town but to educate children. Let’s work together.” He told the board members they should expand the auto shop [at Sussex Tech] and give some of the footprint for classrooms and mechanics space [to the college]. You won’t have to wait three to four years.”
Connelly and Parker said the programs are already running in temporary locations. They anticipate 300 students when the facility is ready. Culinary students are at Camp Najeda in Stillwater, machining students are at Thorlabs and auto mechanics classes are being held in the leased McGuire building.
Rose asked about the tax implications on Newton. Newton Town Manager Thomas S. Russo, Jr. said at first they were not happy with having another tax exempt property in town. Russo said when they met with the college and other businesses and developers they came to support the McGuire campus project.
“Newton is looking to be made whole short term but looking at long term use of [adjacent] parcels, “ Russo said.
The developer, architect and planner described a potential project with a restaurant and commercial space on the first floor, residential space above and even possible space for satellite Newton Medical Center facilities.
“Let’s get together on this,” Curcio said. “This is going to make us proud one day. It’s solid. It’s to the detriment of the county not to support it.”
The boards said they would meet again to continue the discussion but did not specify a date.
After the meeting Parker said, “I thought the meeting went well and that if people were listening with open minds they heard what the college intends to bring to the county and the Town of Newton: programs that provide degree programs for highly skilled technicians in several fields to be employed in well-paying jobs in Sussex County businesses.
“In the past several years the Freeholders have been expressing concern about the declining population in the county, but we have not heard of a single proposal to address the issue. With the McGuire project, the college is doing exactly that. These programs are designed and intended to educate people for skilled the technical jobs already here in the county — and they are already in place.”
The other board leaders were asked for comment but none had responded as of the time of publication.
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Video was provided by the Sussex County Board of Chosen Freeholders.