September 18, 2019

“Urgent” Planning Needs Top BOE Agenda

By Donald Gilpin

As the 2019-20 school year enters its third week, the Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Board of Education (BOE) is wrestling with the challenges of maintaining top-flight schools in the face of steadily rising enrollments and limited financial resources.

All six schools are at or over capacity, with school buildings more than 50 years old, and, in the case of Princeton High School, more than 90 years old.

“We need more space,” BOE President Beth Behrend told a September 10 special meeting, “but are faced with budgetary constraints on our ability to staff and teach in these spaces.”

Emphasizing the importance of collaboration within the schools and with the larger community, Behrend noted, “What we do next requires big thinking. Solving the puzzle of ‘growth with great schools’ requires planning and action, not just by the Princeton Board of Education, but also by our municipal bodies, our local institutions, and by the entire community.”

Behrend pointed out that the current focus is on process rather than solutions, with the possibility of another facilities referendum not even on the table at this point. “Many in our community would like to know when to expect another facilities referendum,” she said. “The simple answer is that we do not know yet because we do not have a pre-ordained outcome in mind. Instead, we believe that the best solution will come from an informative, transparent, and collaborative planning process.”

She continued, “This requires full engagement with teachers, staff, students, local residents, and partners in order to first agree on needs and priorities and only then identify the best path forward based on our mission and values, within our community’s financial means. Our goal, as stewards of the public schools, is to develop a mission-driven, cost-effective plan to address rising enrollment and aging facilities based on sound data, creative planning, and a high level of community engagement.”

The September 10 meeting, which drew a large crowd including community leaders, representatives of a number of local organizations, and a range of interested citizens, featured a presentation from Milone & Macbroom (M&M), a professional planning firm with experience helping school districts and municipalities address the complex challenges arising from growth.

M&M was recommended to the BOE by a district selection committee and the BOE’s ad hoc Strategic Advisory Committee on Growth and Capacity (SAC) as “an exceptional educational consulting group with the requisite analytical and planning capacities which will be critical in assisting the Board in advancing our strategic planning process.” 

SAC Chair Bob Powell noted a “sense of urgency that the Board must be proactive in its short-term and long-term facilities planning,” in light of projections for significant growth in Princeton’s population and school enrollment over the next 5-10 years. 

“We strongly support the initiative to engage this firm to work with the Board and its staff, together with our volunteer committees and the Princeton community, in developing an intelligent strategy to address the challenges of growth our school system is facing,” Powell said.

Ralph Widner, chair of the ad hoc Committee on Future Enrollment (CFE), also made a statement supporting the hiring of a planner. PPS enrollment has increased nearly 10 percent over the past five years, with a 1.28 percent increase since last year. Constitutionally-mandated affordable housing plans, which the municipality expects to announce in the coming months, could increase Princeton’s housing stock by 10 percent in the next ten years.

The CFE was convened in February to help validate updated enrollment projections, and the SAC, comprised of local citizens with expertise in the relevant fields, advises the BOE and superintendent on the school impact of municipal land use planning and real estate development.

The BOE plans to take action on the recommendation to hire M&M at its next meeting on September 24. M&M’s planning would take place over a seven-month period, with some initial fact-finding, much of which the district can supply; followed by community outreach, workshops, interviews, and connecting with the broader community in the second, third, and fourth months; then the presentation of a preliminary long-range plan with four different options or scenarios presented to the public for feedback in the sixth month; and a final plan in month seven.

The cost to the district would be approximately $90,000, plus possibly as much as $50,000 additional, depending on the need for preliminary research that the district has not already provided.

“We don’t know the answers, but, as stewards of the public schools, we must carefully plan for the future on behalf of all of our current and future students,” Behrend said. ”Our Board has solicited planning firms to help us build on the work of the past two years, assess and verify the data we have already gathered, define district needs, engage the public, develop alternatives, and quarterback a facilities master planning process.”

Representatives from M&M emphasized their commitment to understand the community and where it’s heading, and “to lead a thoughtful community planning process that is informative, transparent, and receptive.” They added that this would be a “consensus-building project,” in which they gather information then “come up with a program that matches your goals and visions.”

Their proposal could include a recommendation for additions or alterations to existing buildings, new buildings, redistricting, and/or other configuration options. 

In the question period following the M&M presentation, some concerns were expressed about the cost and the need for the extensive planning process. BOE member Debbie Bronfeld was most direct in expressing her reservations at the prospect of hiring a planning team.

“We have a lot more housekeeping to do internally,” she said. “We need to concentrate on what’s happening now with our current referendum projects.”

BOE member Michele Tuck-Ponder urged that the planners adopt a strategy “to ensure that you hear a variety of voices.”