July 3, 2018

Given Historic Value of Valley Road School, Other Issues, Referendum Should Be Postponed

To the Editor:

According to the School Board’s numbers, it’s going to cost $1,088,000 to demolish Valley Road School. Let’s get real.

First, Valley Road School (VRS) is a historical site, the location of the first integrated regional school in the area. In 2013 it was honored by Preservation N.J. as one of the 10 Most Endangered Historic Places in the State. Constructed in 1918, VRS gained a reputation for cutting-edge curriculum development. In the 1950s, under the Princeton Plan, VRS became integrated when students were assigned to schools on the basis of their grade, rather than on the basis of their neighborhood. Many from the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood became students at Valley Road School.

In recognition of the historic importance of VRS, the original design for the new 5th/6th school included the limestone arch from Valley Road School to symbolize its history and importance to the community. Members of the community, including two from the Historic Preservation Commission, met with Superintendent Steve Cochrane and the School Board’s architect, and the design team reiterated this plan. The group expressed disappointment that the plan didn’t include saving more of historic Valley Road School, but appreciated how the arch at least symbolically represented the past. Since that time, each presentation has repeatedly incorporated the historic arch in the design.

However, in presenting the Long Term Facilities Plan to the Planning Board on June 28, things suddenly changed. The arch disappeared from the building design, leaving what looks like only one of the smaller arches as a mere landscape element, no longer an integral part of the new building. 

Not only is this a radical change and a violation of a commitment, it brings up a question ­— instead of spending more than $1 million to demolish the entire building, couldn’t portions be saved, such as the 1950s addition currently housing the District’s Administrative Offices? Former Superintendent Judy Wilson, not that long ago, in fact, undertook a major renovation of this portion of the building, including installing a new chiller system.

Let’s take a step back. Let’s postpone the referendum. We need to know that the School Board has fully evaluated the needs of the community and its children by developing a cost-effective proposal. There has been a lack of public involvement at every step of the referendum process. We should not need to spend $130 million and mortgage the future of the town to make the improvements we need to our schools. We are still paying off the previous bonds. This new bond issue is 45 percent more than the previous one. Let’s improve the Building Programs narrative that is supposed to describe in detail the foundation of the design, and should be the product of extensive stakeholder participation. Let’s peer review the capacity assessment and the enrollment projections. Let’s see how the town’s affordable housing plans shape up over the next year. Let’s also look at shared space opportunities with the municipality. Otherwise, I can see us heading down the same road that led to the massive cost overruns, mistakes and litigation involving the Performing Arts Center, which was constructed as a major part of the last bond issue.

Let’s pay off the bonds we are still paying off, and take a year to determine as a community what we want to do. We have the time, particularly at the high school level. We need to take the time.

Kip Cherry

Dempsey Avenue