May 15, 2019

Tight PPS Budget Forces Staff Cuts

By Donald Gilpin

For the first time since 2010, Princeton Public Schools will be making reductions in staff, as a divided Board of Education (BOE) grapples with the challenges of moving forwarded with limited resources.

At last week’s more than three-hour public meeting, the BOE voted 6-4 to approve the 2019-2020 budget, which calls for cuts of 10.2 full-time teaching positions and 10 instructional assistants, as well as other cuts and cost-saving measures.

A number of teachers and parents spoke out at the meeting, condemning the cuts as unfair and claiming they would have a disproportionate impact on the most needy students.

Board member Michele Tuck-Ponder, one of the “no” votes, shared their concerns. “The budget was balanced to the detriment of the most vulnerable students,” she said. “The pain needs to be equally felt. Contrary to our strategic goal of equity and fairness, a whole bunch of people aren’t going to feel any pain. What I don’t see is pain in advanced placement or in the orchestra, or areas we like to hold up and bandy about and say what a fine school district we are. Any school district that does not take care of the least of us is not a fine school district.”

PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane weighed in on the question of equity, saying, “I see the story differently. We’re still moving forward towards our goal of equity. We are continuously focused on our most vulnerable.” He cited positions added in recent years to support vulnerable students. “I see us saying we want to support our vulnerable. The budget is not my ideal, but it is fair and thought through carefully.”

The reductions, some of which will take place by attrition, include one teacher at Community Park and one at Littlebrook; four academic intervention services (AIS) teachers, one at each elementary school; and at Princeton High School (PHS), where enrollment is projected to be lower next year, one teacher each in English, social studies, and science; and a .4 partial teacher position in Latin, .4 teacher in health/adaptive PE, and .4 teacher in math.

Cuts to administration and other staff will include the director of communications, a human resources

staff member, a high school secretary, a high school building monitor, and a .4 position of parent education and outreach coordinator.

Jennifer Bigioni, PHS union liaison, librarian, and mother of two PHS students, attacked the cuts that she claimed mostly spared administrators and went “to the heart and soul of the district, the people who have the contact with the students, who will keep class sizes down and electives running.”

Citing the budget as a reflection of the BOE’s misplaced priorities, Dafna Kendal, former BOE member and mother of two children in the district, echoed the concerns of Bigioni, Tuck-Ponder and others. “Teachers and services for the most vulnerable of students will be reduced,” she said.

On the final resolution to pass the budget, Beth Behrend, Jessica Deutsch, Betsy Kalber Baglio, Brian McDonald, Gregory Stankiewicz, and Evelyn Spann voted “yes,” while Debbie Bronfeld, Daniel Dart, Bill Hare, and Tuck-Ponder voted “no.”

In voicing her dissent, Bronfeld called for more creative cost-savings measures, including shared services and strategic partnerships with Princeton Charter School and the Cranbury School District. Both she and Dart cited the need to revisit an agreement with Cranbury, in particular Cranbury’s payment for their students who need special education services.

In an email Monday, BOE President Behrend discussed the fiscal and educational challenges. “We are fortunate in Princeton to have ten board members who are passionate about our students’ well-being, achievement, and equity. The devil is in the details, however, given our charge of providing a ‘thorough and efficient’ education for a steadily growing student population within increasingly constrained financial means. It can be frustrating to be responsible for vision, goals, and student well-being with little to no control over major cost drivers such as obligations to pay labor, benefits, and charter school tuition, which are rising faster than the 2 percent levy cap supports.”

She continued, “This year for the first time in a decade, we had to make structural adjustments to balance the books, reducing and redirecting staff to support and educate students, for less. This budget, with its difficult reductions, passed with majority support, enabling us to begin planning for the challenges ahead.”

Cochrane commented further on the budget process and the district’s commitment to equity. “We also looked beyond the budget at creative ways to actually provide more services with fewer resources,” he stated. “We are increasing our connections to our community partners. Through shared services and collaborative grants, we are cost-effectively expanding the network of people to support our students.”

He went on to point out, “We are a district fully committed to equity, and our budget continues to support professional development for all our staff in equity-related efforts such as differentiation of instruction and awareness of implicit bias.”

The total budget for next year, $100,425,988, represents a 1.42 percent increase over this year. Principal “drivers” of the budget increase, according to a PPS “2019-20 Budget Q&A” publication, include total salary expenditures, which have increased an average 3.5 percent per year over the past five years due to a growing student population and contractual obligations to staff; employee health and prescription drug coverage, up 8 percent for next year, 6 percent average increase over the past five years; and PCS tuition, up 6 percent for next year and an average of 8 percent per year over the past five years. 

The 2019 school tax rate is projected to mean an additional $264 for a home in Princeton assessed at the average value of $838,562.

The PPS Q&A document notes the necessity of making staff cuts to close the budget gap. With nearly 77 percent of operating costs associated with salaries and benefits, “Ultimately, we had no choice but to balance the budget by including reductions in our staff of approximately 3 percent,” the document states. 

Behrend outlined some of the challenges ahead for the board. “Given current trends, our structural deficit will continue, and we are all keenly aware of the need to proactively ‘rethink’ how we deliver services to our students, within our means and in accordance with our mission, over the longer term. This effort will take innovation, creativity, and collaboration — resources that the Princeton community has in abundance.”

She continued, “We look forward to mobilizing these resources and to working with our administrators, staff, students, and community to find a way, despite fiscal challenges, to maintain and develop our public schools as places of equity, wellness, and excellent teaching and learning.”