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Board Candidates Ask Voters to Approve District's Budget

Candace Braun

The results of Tuesday's school election will be posted on Town Topics' Web site. A full report on the election results will run next week.

With Tuesday's election looming, the three candidates for the Princeton Regional Board of Education gathered at the Suzanne Patterson Center Sunday night to speak to residents about the $67 million budget for the 2005-2006 school year, as well as the $1.9 million supplemental budget.

Since all the candidates were unopposed incumbents, their first priority was to explain to residents why it was important to not only pass the base budget, but also the second ballot question, which would fund programming and other district needs that could not be supported in this year's regular budget.

"I cannot imagine any other group being more supportive of the second question than this group," Walter Bliss said to Princeton residents and members of the Princeton Community Democratic Organization, which sponsored the forum.

"The local municipalities are the front line in education," he said, adding that many parts of the second question are devoted to making sure children have what they need to get a proper education from the day they enter kindergarten.

The second question is broken down into three parts: $1.4 million toward academic intervention and support, $250,000 toward enrichment programs, and $200,000 for school safety, something the district feels should be addressed following recent gang activity involving students at the high school.

"This is a critical opportunity for us to put our money where our mouth is," said Mr. Bliss.

Chair of the minority education committee on the Board, Mr. Bliss is running for a Township seat along with Jeffrey Spear, the program committee chair. They are running for three-year terms along with Borough candidate Michael Mostoller, chairman of the Board's facilities committee. "School Boards are at the bottom of the food chain and really have no bargaining power when it comes to state and federal budgets," said Mr. Spear.

While trying to close the achievement gap among students, the district has continually added programs to help the cause; many of these, however, had to be part of the second question this year. The unfunded state mandates that account for approximately 25 percent of the budget cause most of the problems when the district is looking for money for new programming.

"We have to afford [the second question]. This is an investment that saves money in the long term," said Mr. Bliss, adding that approximately $12 million of the base budget funds special education, a program that would be less crowded if student needs were met in other areas.

"Princeton has an extreme turnover rate at the elementary level, as high as 20 percent," said Mr. Spear, adding that these are the students the new programming would benefit.

He suggested that it is much more difficult to close the achievement gap in Princeton than in other districts, because some children have highly educated parents who can personally tutor their children, while others can afford to hire professional tutors. This leaves some children far behind their peers in the classroom.

Mr. Spears listed various parts of the second ballot question that would help such children, including the institution of a math and literacy program for students in third through eighth grade; the hiring of an elementary school behavioral specialist who would provide full-time support for those with behavioral and emotion problems; and the hiring of early intervention teachers for each of the four elementary schools, with the focus on learning strategies, particularly in literacy and math.

Mr. Bliss said that Superintendent Judith Wilson helped create the programs that are part of the second question: "She's very disarming, but absolutely tough as nails. I'm totally confidant she'll put this money to the best use."

Gang Issues

Candidates also addressed residents' concerns about gang problems at the high school. Wanting to keep the schools safe without the imposition of actual police officers, Board members told residents that $180,000 in the second question is allocated toward funding an unarmed, non-uniformed security monitor at the middle school and high school, as well as a dean of students at PHS.

This dean they hope to find would be a "big, tough, authoritative person who will win the hearts of the students," while assisting the principal with student issues and concerns, said Mr. Bliss. As chair of the minority education committee, Mr. Bliss spoke to the problems that minority students face in Princeton.

"Minority children are overrepresented in special education, and not represented enough in advanced placement courses," he said, adding that in contrast to other districts, African Americans and Hispanics are also underrepresented in sports.

Both athletic and musical activities bring students together in a safe, motivating environment at school, and they need to be supported by taxpayers, said Mr. Bliss. He told residents that almost $250,000 in the supplemental budget is geared toward improving opportunities in sports and music, including a music teacher for the elementary and middle school, at a cost of $85,000.

"We have to be able to expand our middle school offerings to keep students engaged," said Mr. Bliss. "All our children must have access to these programs."


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