Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 51
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Wednesday, December 22, 2010
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Board Discusses Future of Valley Road Building; Missed Blue Ribbon

Ellen Gilbert

A resolution concerning future use of the Valley Road Building and a discussion about a failed attempt to achieve “Blue Ribbon School” status for Riverside School were the main themes of last week’s Board of Education meeting.

The resolution, which was unanimously passed by the Board, noted that the older part of the building, which is currently occupied “under revocable license agreements” by Corner House, Princeton Young Achievers, TV-30 and the Township Affordable Housing Office, “is in a continuing state of decline.” Since the Board has determined that it “cannot divert scarce education dollars to rehabilitate and maintain” the older section, the Board has notified occupants of the old building “that it must be vacated and closed no later than June 30, 2011.”

The resolution also agreed to consider a joint proposal, prepared by retiring Township Mayor Bernie Miller, Borough Mayor Mildred Trotman, Borough Councilman Kevin Wilkes, Princeton Emergency Services Director Mark Freda, and Princeton Planner Lee Solow that suggests demolishing the old building; expanding the existing firehouse that adjoins the building to accommodate consolidation of all community fire services; and constructing a new building that would “somewhat” expand the current old building’s footprint to consolidate all community emergency and first aid aid vehicles.” The plan includes providing a three-story space for Corner House.

Members of the Valley Road Adaptive Reuse Committee (ARC) who attended and spoke at the meeting suggested that housing emergency services was not really consistent with the Board’s stated goal of having tenants in the building who support the district’s educational mission.

“We believe that the best use of the old part is to rebuild it with private and public funds and use it as a community center,” said Dick Woodbridge. He expressed skepticism about the possibility of all three fire departments coming together in the near future, and suggested that keeping tenants such as Corner House and TV30, and creating new spaces devoted to social services and the arts would be “more consistent” with the Board’s educational mission. 

“If the Board endorses the current proposal it stands to lose about 1,500 Valley Road School alumni who would contribute to this project,” Mr. Woodbridge said.

School Superintendent Judy Wilson noted that passage of the resolution that evening in no way precluded hearing other proposals. She encouraged anyone interested to submit alternative proposals to the Board by June 1.

Members of ARC, including Mr. Woodbridge, Kip Cherry, Jim Firestone, and Jim Floyd emphasized their seriousness of intent, describing public meetings that are held the third Wednesday of each month at the Valley Road School. They reported that they have applied for 501C3 (nonprofit organization) status, and are consulting with an architect and fundraiser to determine the “fiscal feasibility” of their plan. Ms. Cherry said that consideration is being given to time-share, user-fee, and long-term leasing arrangements, and asked for the board’s support.

“Our dream is to have Witherspoon Street become the cultural corridor for the entire neighborhood,” commented Anne Reeves. She described the area as a “huge neighborhood where traffic problems could be eased by centralizing education-related agencies to a place to which young and old could walk.”

No Blue Ribbon

Ms. Wilson described Blue Ribbon School status as “a tremendous honor, that the Riverside School “truly deserved.” The Blue Ribbon Schools Program honors public and private elementary, middle, and high schools that are either high performing or have improved student achievement to high levels, especially among disadvantaged students. The program is part of a larger Department of Education effort to identify and disseminate knowledge about best school leadership and teaching practices. The Princeton Charter School, which received the award in 2004, is the only district school to have been so honored.

As a result of Riverside’s tradition of excellence in working with special needs students, Ms. Wilson explained, it typically draws students from the district’s three other elementary schools. When these children’s spring 2010 standardized test scores were included in the application, Riverside School’s scores were not high enough to meet the benchmark for annual progress under the No Child Left Behind Act. Ms. Wilson also described “inconsistencies in scoring” as a contributing factor, noting, with some emotion, that appeals for redoing questionable scores were “returned unchanged,” and that other appeals for reviews of the case have been denied.

The experience, however, will lead to the creation of new fields in registration software to record children’s residences and improved staff training. “We are learners and we are moving forward,” Ms. Wilson observed.

Riverside teachers Tina Dillello and Paul Chapin both expressed considerable disappointment with the way in which the district handled the episode. Ms. DiLello pointed to long intervals between responses to queries and the fact that teachers “had to initiate every interaction” with the Board. She noted the absence of checks and balances that would have ensured that this mistake could not happen.

Both Ms. DiLello and Mr. Chapin expressed disappointment with the Board’s failure to apologise. Saying that he rejected the explanation given at the meeting, Mr. Chapin suggested that there is “information missing” and that the Board should continue “to question the process.”

Both Ms. Wilson and Finance Committee Chair Charles Kalmbach encouraged the public to attend an open forum on January 12 for a preliminary discussion of the 2011-2012 budget. Mr. Kalmbach emphasized that this will not be a formal presentation, but rather an opportunity to discuss the implications of new state legislation that will impose a two percent cap on the budget, as well as finding means of cost savings, efficiencies, and shared revenue streams.

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