September 26, 2018

Schools Consider Referendum Compromise

By Donald Gilpin

In the face of widespread criticism and concern, voiced through public statements at meetings, through petitions, and elsewhere, Princeton Public Schools’ (PPS) Board of Education (BOE) is considering narrowing the scope of its $129.6M bond referendum proposal.

As of press time yesterday, before last night’s BOE meeting, where listening to the community and discussing options — but no vote for two more weeks — were on the agenda, the BOE’s latest compromise plan called for a reduced referendum total of about $82.5M.

A plan offered by the BOE Facilities Committee would split the proposal with the first question including $27M for immediate essential needs, like security, HVAC, and crucial renovations at all schools; and the second question of about $55M, which could pass only if the first question passed, including the construction of a new 5/6 school on the Valley Road site and the acquisition of the Thanet Road property for administration, transportation, and maintenance. More extensive improvements and expansion at Princeton High School (PHS) would be postponed for three or four years. For all these plans the BOE expects approvals soon from the State Department of Education.

“We need to do the right thing for our kids,” said PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane at last Saturday’s referendum information/discussion meeting in the PHS cafeteria. “We hope to have more interactive discussion about this.” More interactive discussion is a certainty. In addition to Saturday’s lively session, with about 75 community members along with the superintendent, Board Chairman Patrick Sullivan, and several other BOE members in attendance, last night’s meeting was expected to be well attended, as is a gathering on the referendum at Witherspoon Presbyterian Church this Saturday, September 29 at 9:30 a.m.

A pro-referendum group, Yes For Princeton Schools (Y4PS), was planning to present a petition with more than 200 signatures to the BOE at last night’s meeting, objecting to the ideas of limiting the scope of the referendum and postponing a major renovation of PHS.

Explaining Y4PS’s concerns, Nicole Pezold-Hancock stated, “We believe that the Board of Education’s new proposal may suggest to voters that approving only the smaller first question is a legitimate alternative for addressing the district’s most urgent needs. This could encourage the community to ignore the serious problem of overcrowding at all the schools, including PHS.”

Y4PS’s petition also mentioned the negative consequences of losing the opportunity to buy the Thanet property and went on to urge more community discussion like Saturday’s session at PHS.

Discussion of the referendum will continue through a special meeting on October 9 when the BOE plans to again consider the referendum proposal before taking a vote on exactly what to place on the ballot for the community to vote on, possibly as early as December 11.

“We have to decide what kind of referendum we can all live with,” Sullivan said at Saturday’s meeting. “We’re trying to build a consensus about how to move forward.” He went on to emphasize that it’s the voters, the community, rather than the BOE, that makes the decision about what’s going to be built. “We have to provide choices, but you will go out and vote on them. It’s up to all of us to decide.”

Pointing out that the BOE and others have been working on this referendum proposal for more than two years, he added, “What we’re heading towards, I think, is a compromise with a smaller question No. 1 and a question No. 2 that would include the 5/6 school and the purchase of the Thanet property, and some high school improvements.” Further discussions over the next two years, he said, would give the community time to come to a consensus.

“That feels like a compromise that would spread out the pain and provide more time for people who want to get involved in the process.” he continued, “There is a broad spectrum of opinion in town,” he added, noting that many people had attended BOE meetings this year, almost all to express opposition to the referendum proposal.

In a letter to parents, staff, and community members sent out Friday, Cochrane emphasized that the BOE has been listening to members of the community and considering carefully how to reconcile the schools’ needs with financial restraints. “How do we address the issues of security, equity, student wellness, and the need for space in our aging schools in a way that is financially manageable for everyone in a town of tremendous economic diversity, and at a time of significant limits on property tax deductions?”

He went on to note that extensive expansion at PHS remains an urgent need, though it may be postponed, since demographic projections show fairly constant high school enrollment for the next four years. Cochrane predicted that the needs for expansion at PHS would be “amplified by many voices” at last night’s meeting, and he pointed out, “The goal is to chart a pathway forward that unites our community around balancing the need to improve security, HVAC, and space in our schools with a financial impact that is manageable for all in our town.”

For an average assessed Princeton home of $837,074, the estimated additional yearly tax impact of the $82.5M reduced referendum proposal would be about $165 in the first year, $206 in the second year, and $483 in the third year. In year four, the existing debt retires, and the amount falls below the current debt service payment and continues to decrease in subsequent years.

The BOE planned to discuss this proposal in more detail and to hear from the public at last night’s meeting. Mary Lyons from Phoenix Advisors, the district’s bond advisors, was scheduled to be at the meeting to answer questions about the tax impact projections.

Noting that the newest building in the district is John Witherspoon Middle School, built in 1965, Cochrane emphasized the importance of making the best possible decisions on this project. “This will be a decision with impact for many decades to come,” he said. “It may be another 50 years before the district undertakes another project of this size.”