Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 15
 
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
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Superintendent Wilson Sees the Beginning of “A Long Fight”

Ellen Gilbert

“How can so much good, assembled over so many years, disappear so quickly?” asked Superintendent Judy Wilson in a recent interview about the effects of state budget cuts on the Princeton Regional Schools (PRS). “It’s hard to realize that with the stroke of a pen, it’s all gone. The community is being told that it can’t do what it wants.”

“This district was built according to local values,” she noted. “Full-day kindergarten, the elementary school science curriculum, the world-language program — none of these was about ‘adequacy.’”

The governor cut state aid to PRS by 67 percent, or $3.7 million. An additional three million dollar gap existed due to lost revenue in interest monies; decreased tuition from Cranbury; increased costs of benefits, insurances, energy and contractual salaries; and obligations to two charter schools (Princeton Charter School and the newly formed Princeton International Academy). As a result, services, programs, and as many as 50 positions may be eliminated across the district.

Although the total budget for the coming year is $2.6 million dollars less than the current year’s budget, it will still necessitate a tax increase to cover a portion of the gap left by the loss in state aid. The Borough tax impact will be $544 for the average assessed home of $753,125. The Township tax impact will be $241 for the average assessed home of $837,300. Residents of both municipalities will have an opportunity to vote on the tax levy question, and choose from a slate of candidates for open school board positions, on April 20.

Ms. Wilson said that she can’t emphasize the importance of voting for the budget enough. “People shouldn’t just shake their heads and say ‘well, the cuts are made,’” she emphasized. “The values that catapulted us to being an outstanding district are under fire.”

If the budget is rejected by the voters it will go to Borough Council and Township Committee, which, as a joint body, would determine the tax levy to fund the schools for the next year.

“We need to find our common voice,” said Ms. Wilson. “This is the beginning of a long fight to preserve and regain our tradition of excellence. With every bit of new legislation passed over the last five to ten years, districts have slowly but steadily lost their decision-making powers.” Citing the governor’s prediction that there will be an even lower cap next year, Ms. Wilson emphasized that fiscal problems “will in no way end on April 20.”

Although she was unable to offer details, Ms. Wilson said that she expects “all parties,” including the teachers’ union, to “make concessions” and come together with “good will.”

She noted that the Princeton Education Foundation (PEF) is “stepping up to the plate” in its efforts to encourage private philanthropy to enhance public education for students at all levels. Since its inception in 1995, PEF has contributed over $500,000 to the Princeton Regional Schools for capital improvements, educational programs and teacher support. The problem with such contributions, Ms. Wilson noted, is that although it is usually given on an ad hoc basis, there is a perception that it takes the place of on-going public funding.

The presence of two charter schools also rankles Ms. Wilson. “Princeton is the first example of the demographic and fiscal impact of what a charter school can do in a high-performing district,” she said.

“New Jersey charter school legislation is weak, overlapping, and lacking in detail. The Board’s goal is to have a very strong voice in reshaping charter school legislation,” she noted, expressing the hope that there would be “new application parameters” and “greater oversight” of the approval process for new charter schools, which are “wholeheartedly supported by the governor and State Education Commission.”

Returning to the theme of long-term planning, Ms. Wilson described the district as “trying to be the most creative, most sensitive it can be, making the best of a bad situation that will not end soon.”

For more information, also see www.prs.k12.nj.us.

See “Mailbox” for a related letter from Ms. Wilson.

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