School Budget Heralds Another Tax Hike

Linda Arntzenius

The cost of maintaining the "Princeton Difference" in education will mean another property tax increase for Borough and Township homeowners.

At a special budget meeting on Monday, March 12, the Princeton Regional Board of Education voted unanimously to adopt a preliminary budget of $76,101,428 for the 2007-08 school year.

This figure represents an increase of 5.41 percent over the 2006-07 budget, with the general fund tax levy — the portion of the budget that the voters will be asked to approve when school board elections take place on April 17 — up by 5.52 percent to $56,185,268.

If approved by the county and by Princeton voters on April 17, the result will be a rise of 9.16 percent for homeowners in the Borough and 6.41 percent in the Township.

This means a rise of $525 for the average Township homeowner, assuming a property valued at $427,900, to approximately $7,360 for 2007-08. Taxes would increase to $1.72 for every $100 of assessed value — that's 10 cents more than last year.

For an average home in the Borough, assuming a property valued at $348,413, property taxes would increase by about $557 to approximately $6,585 for 2007-08. Taxes in the Borough would increase to $1.89 per $100 of assessed value — that's a 16-cent increase from the 2006-2007 school year.

While the 2007-08 budget is up from last year's $72.4 million, facilities expansion is no longer the focus. This year's budget concentrates on strengthening already existing programs, said Superintendent of Schools Judith A. Wilson.

It includes additional faculty, increased custodial staff to maintain cleanliness, increased technology, and the first phase of staffing for the new Princeton Performing Arts Center at Princeton High School. "This budget takes us into the post expansion years, supporting the arts center in the next phase of its development," said Ms. Wilson.

"The budget is goal driven," she said, adding that she was pleased that the preliminary budget continues the "Princeton Difference" of academic excellence. She reported that the tax-levy budget rose just 2.29 percent, the lowest increase since the 2001-2002 school year.

The much-publicized increase in state aid (amounting to about $110,000 for the district) adds only a small percentage of funding for the budget, she noted. "We'll take it, we'll use it well, but it doesn't impact the budget significantly."

Alan Hegedus, vice president of the board and chair of the finance committee, criticized state policymakers for the lack of meaningful state aid and unfunded state mandates that deprive the district of autonomy. "We are moving ahead in a hostile environment," he said, adding that the district would be looking for ways to make revenue from the new facilities.

Mr. Hegedus also criticized the amount of tax-exempt property in Princeton that results in property owners bearing the full brunt of sustaining the excellence of Princeton's schools. Princeton taxpayers have been very generous in the hope that the state would come through with some form of tax relief, he said, adding that he despaired of that ever happening and that the district must find creative ways of moving forward.

A report on the budget is in preparation and expected to be mailed to Princeton homes by the end of the month. A public hearing on the budget is scheduled to take place at the board's next monthly meeting on March 27, at 8 p.m. in the cafeteria of the John Witherspoon Middle School.

Princeton voters will cast their ballots on the budget and school board candidates on April 17.

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