Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 5
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
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School Board Cites Charter School as Fiscal Challenge

Ellen Gilbert

Possible changes in the district’s relationship with the Princeton Charter School (PCS) were alluded to in comments by both Superintendent Judy Wilson and President Alan Hegedus at last Tuesday’s Princeton Regional School (PRS) Board meeting.

Describing the challenge of preparing the 2009-2010 budget, which is due to be submitted to the county in early March, Ms. Wilson said that she and Mr. Hegedus had recently met with the PCS board to “share economic concerns.” Reporting to the PRS board on Tuesday evening, she said that the additional $550,000 the district budget would be required to raise for PCS’s growing enrollment may “not fit into our plans.”

Returning to the question later in the meeting, Mr. Hegedus referred to “wasteful resources” requiring “more scrutiny” as charter schools in the state proliferate. He also noted a state call for “major consolidation of school systems.” Asking whether the “dispersion of resources to support charter school students is efficient,” he answered his question by concluding, “We think not.”

Ms. Wilson and Mr. Hegedus also met recently with state senator Shirley Turner (D-15) and assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-15) to discuss the district’s financial situation. Mr. Hegedus reported that the district’s concerns about PCS were “well-understood” by Ms. Turner, and that she and Mr. Gusciora were “sensitive” to the district’s willingness to “challenge in court” any mandates that would require cuts in per-pupil expenditures. “We’ve drawn a line in the sand,” he said. “We haven’t spent decades getting to where we are without the expectation that that will continue.”

“The New Jersey charter school laws create allocation methodology for funding,” observed PCS head Broderick Boxley when asked about the school board’s implied questions regarding PCS’s viability in the face of district financial concerns. “We work very hard to meet our mission in a fiscally responsible manner, mindful of coming pressures. We want to work together where it makes sense. Conversations among leaders at PRS and PCS can give us an opportunity to communicate and posit ideas that will benefit kids, the taxpayer, and our respective school missions. Through Mrs. Wilson’s leadership and the guidance of the PRS Board of Education, I am certain PRS will maintain its reputation while rising to both the educational and financial challenges of this new fiscal era.”

Economic Stimulus Plan

Ms. Wilson acknowledged the swiftness with which the new Obama administration is moving, saying that PRS actually appears in the line-by-line plan for allocations under the proposed economic stimulus plan posted on the White House website. She noted, however, that such allocations would probably be for maintenance costs, rather than new projects. The successful funding of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) obligations would bring “huge” money to the state, she said, although it is not clear how the money would be delivered and with what restrictions. There are “lots of remaining questions,” she concluded. Ms. Wilson and Mr. Hegedus also both reported on a recent request from the New Jersey Commissioner of Education asking school districts for a list of mandates that would save taxpayers’ dollars if relieved.

The board spent a considerable portion of Tuesday evening’s meeting discussing the future of the Valley Road Building. Facilities Committee liaison Mia Cahill encouraged the Board to be “part of the discussion,” which includes proposals for minimizing costs on the side of the building currently being used, and eliminating costs on the unused, Witherspoon Street side. Ms. Cahill said that unless a non-taxpayer funded plan is proposed within the next three years, the Witherspoon portion of the building would be demolished. Board member Walter Bliss cited the need for a contractual relationship with a fund-raising party, and both Mr. Bliss and Ms. Cahill expressed strong interest in a plan that would create a space where Princeton’s educational know-how could be marketed to visiting educators.

With Labor Day falling on September 7, parents who are anxious about the starting and ending dates of the 2009-2010 school year have already begun calling the district office, according to Ms. Wilson. Although the schedule has not yet been officially established, she said that she could say for certain that students will not start school before Labor Day, thus extending the school year further into June, when students are usually already engaged in camp and summer activities. Calendar recommendations will be presented at the board’s February meeting. 

The next meeting of the Princeton Regional Board Education will be Tuesday, February 24, at 8 p.m., in the John Witherspoon Middle School cafeteria. A Budget Workshop will be held prior to that on February 17, at 6:30 p.m. in the Valley Road Administration building. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss and plan for the 2009-10 budget. It will be open to the public, and no action will be taken.

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