HIGH SCHOOL MESS IS FAR FROM ELEMENTARY

Burlington County Times, May 14, 2001

I consider myself to be a fairly intelligent person who keeps up with current events. I read daily papers, weekly news magazines, and Internet bulletins. I watch local and national news broadcasts, and listen to the radio for more than the weather and traffic updates. I’m also opinionated and not afraid to argue my beliefs. But I have to admit that there is one issue that has me stumped. Try as I may, I can come up with no conclusion about Seneca High School, the highly controversial, still unbuilt, fourth high school in the Lenape Regional High School system. Every time I think I understand what’s going on, I read another letter-to-the-editor and my attitude flips to the other side.

So far as I can tell, here’s the story: In 1997, a small number of the majority of eligible voters by a tiny margin overwhelmingly approved the building of a fourth high school in a specific location on a site to be determined later. The U.S. Secretary of the Interior allowed the Pinelands Commission retroactively in the future to change its rules to allow the school to be built on a defunct, active sod farm that was slated for development on wet lands. In the meantime, the school district sued some Tabernacle officials for discharging their legal duty while in conflict of interest. Every case brought by environmentalists has been thrown out of court, where the cases are still pending. The area which will be served by the high school has a burgeoning population that has dramatically decreased since the 1990 census. The site is in the midst of major housing developments in the middle of nowhere. To make matters worse, Jimmy Hoffa’s bones have been found encased in asbestos in former Nike missile silos on the site, and Kenneth Starr has been appointed as a special investigator to figure out a way to implicate former President Clinton in the controversy.

Okay, I made up the last part. But the rest of it is exactly how it seems when reading all the letters and articles about the school. Is it any wonder that I’m confused?

Last week, I decided to take a ride to Tabernacle and check things out for myself. I know where Caranza Road is located, having stumbled onto the memorial for the “Mexican Lindburgh” several years ago while driving around aimlessly. After crossing Rte. 206, I turned right from Rte. 532. When I got to the memorial (I seem to recall that the street wasn’t paved last time I was there), I thought I’d missed the site, but kept going. When I got to the sign for the Wharton State Forest, I knew I’d missed the site – after all, no one had yet accused the school district of planning to put the high school smack in the middle of the Pinelands, just at its edges. I turned around and discovered that Caranza Road continued on the other side of Rte. 532, too.

I never did find a sign indicating the location of the school, but there was a small “pick up sod here” sign next to major construction equipment and the cut through for a new road. I’m guessing that’s where the school will be.

The site is not in the middle of nowhere. But it’s not in the middle of flourishing new housing either. It is, however, too far away for students who live in Mt. Laurel, Evesham, or even most of Medford to attend. And that’s when I realized that one of the arguments against the location of the school does make sense. How will building a school in Tabernacle help alleviate the already overcrowded conditions at both Lenape and Cherokee High Schools? How will the district determine which students will attend which schools? Are we going to be looking at the need for a fifth high school in the not-too-distant future?

One of the objections to moving the site is that land in Mt. Laurel, if even available, is far more expensive than comparable acreage in Tabernacle. But if students who live in Mt. Laurel and in Medford north of Rte. 70 aren’t transferred to the new school, then what will be done to help them? Will we be seeing an annex of Lenape High School on the site of Johnson’s Farm?

And what about the students at Cherokee High School, all of whom live in Evesham Township? A new elementary school and renovations to the middle school, as well as a regional performing arts center, have already been built adjacent to Cherokee. Residents of the nearby neighborhoods have been complaining for years about the traffic and parking violations. Considering the problems the township had in finding a suitable spot for the municipal complex, and the on-going controversy about using the Aerohaven site for recreational fields, it’s hard to know where a fifth high school could be built in Evesham.

Which leaves Medford, an area that has strict regulations about developmental density. The only site I can think of that’s empty is the location of the burned down Settler’s Inn in Medford Lakes. A school would be better than a mega-drugstore, but the site’s not nearly large enough.

The only thing clear in this whole mess is that there’s a need for a fourth – or even a fifth – high school in the Lenape District. And it’s becoming more clear that we’ll be going through this whole contretemps again in just a few years.

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