July 11, 2018

Referendum May Be Split Into Two Questions

By Donald Gilpin

In response to public concerns about the $130M price tag and its effect on local property taxes, the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education is considering dividing its facilities referendum proposal into two parts, with the two questions to be voted on separately.

“I think the entire proposed referendum is a sound plan,” said Board President Patrick Sullivan. “but we’ve gotten feedback from the community that it’s a big bite. We wanted to give people another option to postpone part of the plan for two — three years.”

At a working session last night, which took place after press time, the Board discussed the referendum and the facilities committee proposal to split the question and invited input from the public. A decision will be made at next week’s July 17 Board meeting on whether to split the question, revise the referendum proposal, and possibly postpone the referendum vote from October 2 to the November 6 date of the general election.

Superintendent Steve Cochrane wrote last week, in a letter to families, staff, and community members, “There is no question that as a district we have a need to expand capacity K-12, to address security in all our buildings, to improve HVAC and electrical efficiencies district-wide, and to make some athletic improvements. The question we are weighing is whether the tax impact of addressing all of those needs at the same time is one the community is ready to shoulder — particularly in light of the recent decision at the federal level which will limit the ability of residents to deduct state and local taxes.”

The proposal of the facilities committee of the Board would not eliminate any of the original elements of the referendum proposal, but would include in question No. 1 improvements at the elementary schools; the construction of a new 5-6 school at Valley Road; the purchase of property at Thanet Road for central administration, transportation, and maintenance; security improvements; HVAC and other infrastructure improvements; a few additional high school classrooms; a second floor over the high school fitness center; and an athletic field at Valley Road, with a total price tag of $80.8 M.

Question No. 2, according to the
facilities committee proposal, would include the balance of the high school expansion and additional athletic field and high school upgrades, at a projected cost of $48.8 M.

Emphasizing the merits of the total plan and urging supporters to make their voices heard alongside the voices of those calling for cost cuts, Sullivan said, “I still think the entire plan is a really good one for kids and the community, at an affordable price. People who support what we think is a reasonable plan have to come out and speak up. We want to be sensitive to public concerns, but the whole plan is sound and well thought-out.”

Sullivan added that delays in moving forward could cause additional problems. “Everybody expects interest rates, inflation, and construction costs to rise,” he noted.

Cochrane pointed out the conflicting concerns and the positive nature of the referendum process. “We have identified critical and important needs,” he said. “We have been as sensitive as possible to the costs, and we have engaged the community. I think the process has been healthy and productive. It affirms that there are needs that the schools have identified and acknowledges that there are concerns about the tax impact.”

He went on to emphasize critical needs in the schools. “We’re already at capacity. We’re overcrowded. We have an old building, and we will have continuing issues if we don’t upgrade. We’re trying to be responsive to the public and engage in the democratic process.”