November 21, 2018

Voters Will Decide on $26.9M Referendum

By Donald Gilpin

With significant tension remaining between the needs of the schools and the financial concerns of the residents, the town of Princeton will vote on December 11 on a $26.9 million scaled down bond referendum to provide upgrades to the Princeton Public Schools (PPS).

Following almost two years of planning and more than 40 public forums, the Board of Education (BOE) in early October decided to postpone some of its plans for a facilities referendum that would have cost taxpayers almost $130 million, and instead voted 10-0 to place on the ballot a single question “addressing the district’s most urgent needs in its aging schools, including safety, security, and HVAC upgrades,” according to a PPS press release from last week.

The referendum would also provide facility improvements for Princeton High School (PHS) that would include four additional classrooms, a dining distribution center on the main floor, increased space for athletics, and improved space for student counseling.

“This makes the kind of changes that bring us into the 21st century and responds in the right ways to the challenges that we are currently facing,” said PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane in a comment on the PPS website. “It’s the result of really listening to the community that the Board made the decision to focus this initial referendum in December on the most immediate and urgent needs that we have.”

BOE Chair Patrick Sullivan noted, “Every Board member voted in favor of the referendum because every Board member understands how important the issues are that are at stake here. This is about the stewardship and maintenance of our buildings and ultimately about the future of our children and their education.” 

He continued, “We’ve had over 40 public meetings to discuss referendum issues. We’ve had a lot of input from people, and I think we’ve come up with an exciting vision. We can’t do nothing. This small referendum in 2018 is a first step towards addressing the needs of our children for the next 50 years.”

The anticipated impact on Princeton property taxes for the $26.9 million bond is approximately $57 additional in the first year for an average assessed home of $837,074. Subsequent year estimated additional costs would be about $61 in 2021, about $106 in 2022, then sizable reductions in 2023 and beyond.

Significant needs for space, for
upgrades for all the schools, and aspirations for a new 5/6 school will not be going away, nor will the prospect of another referendum in the coming year or two. For now, however, PPS is focused on the $26.9 million December 11 question.

“Throughout the planning process, the Board continued to listen to a
variety of voices,” the PPS press release states. “It sought to balance the needs of our schools and of our growing student population with a commitment to maintain the economic diversity of our town. Ultimately, in an effort to achieve that balance, the Board decided to focus an initial referendum on the most urgent and immediate needs for our schools.” 

Sullivan added, “What makes the town of Princeton great is our ability to solve problems together. With the challenges we currently face and those we anticipate in the future, it is vital that our community is accurately informed about the immediate needs in our schools and is also engaged in developing the longer-term vision we have for our growing district.”

In the November 6 BOE election, two newcomers who had criticized early proposals for a $130 million referendum, Brian McDonald and Daniel Dart, received the most votes and will take their seats on the Board in January, but Cochrane declined to see a political, anti-referendum message in the election results.

Noting the high level of engagement in the vote and congratulating the recently elected members, Cochrane stated, “When it comes to the education of our children, Princeton is guided by values not politics. We benefit from a Board whose members may have different perspectives and experiences.  We benefit as well from a Board that stands united in prioritizing equity for all children and the highest quality, most cost-effective education for our community.”

Emphasizing the ongoing challenges of “rising enrollments and limited resources,” of aging facilities and overcrowding, Cochrane added, “The December 11 referendum is a first step in a longer-term process as we plan collectively with our community for the further expansion and updating of Princeton Public Schools facilities to cost-effectively meet the educational needs of our children.”

To provide information on the referendum and continue its engagement with the community, the district has announced a new referendum webpage on the district website; Saturday tours of PHS for parents and other community members on December 1 and December 8 at 9:15 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. both days; social media sharing on Twitter @princetonk12 and Facebook @PrincetonPublicSchoolsNJ; and a special “Meet the School Board” on Tuesday, December 4 at 8:30 a.m. in the Board office at 25 Valley Road.