Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 47
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
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PRS Budget Discussions Begin in the Face of Economic Anxiety

Ellen Gilbert

“We’ve never had this discussion in November before,” observed Princeton Regional Schools (PRS) Superintendent Judy Wilson last Tuesday evening at a special Board of Education meeting billed as a “budget development workshop.”

Board president Alan Hegedus’s comment that “unless we find revenue sources to supplement what we’re doing, we’re on a path to mediocrity,” reflected the concern that prompted this early brainstorming session on priorities for PRS’s 2009-2010 budget. Ms. Wilson noted that most of the budget work needs to be done by January 30.

In her preliminary report that evening, PRS Business Administrator Stephanie Kennedy said that, based on the four percent cap to which the district has been entitled in recent years, the estimated average tax levy increase in the coming year would be $218 for Borough residents and $227 for Township residents. Her calculations suggested that without additional revenues, there will be a $1.1 shortfall in the 2009-2010 budget.

PRS budgets in the last two years did not go to cap, and the question of whether or not to take advantage of the expected four percent cap was discussed at length. Addressing the plight of local taxpayers, board member Dan Haughton noted that “jobs have been lost, housing values are down, and the state is nearly bankrupt.” His suggestion of a “budget with options” was ultimately adopted by the board, with the proviso that Ms. Wilson prepare draft budgets based on caps of both three and four percent.

The board expects that utility bills will strike the hardest blow to the budget in the coming year. Discussions of where cuts might be made ran the gamut from busing and security, to personnel layoffs. After observing that “the essence of productivity lies in student-teacher ratios,” board member Walter Bliss suggested that PRS look at ways of increasing class size and the quality of instruction through the use of technology.

Expressing concern that “everything seems to come from us down to them,” board member Tim Quinn suggested that community feedback, perhaps through a wiki or a blog, should be elicited early in the budget preparation process. Mr. Hegedus was doubtful about this, saying that he has lived in Princeton for over 20 years and “continues to be mesmerized by how passive this community is.”

Ideas for generating additional money for the district in the coming years included offering revenue-generating enrichment programs like last year’s summer school, and asking tax exempt institutions, such as the Institute for Advanced Study, for assistance.

Mr. Hegedus also suggested that consolidation with the Princeton Charter School (PCS) would result in considerable savings. In a recent interview, PCS Board of Trustees President Maureen Quirk said that she was not aware of PRS’s interest in consolidation, and did not think that state regulations provided for this possibility. “I don’t see how it would save them any money,” she added, “since they pay more per pupil than we do. Year after year, the state report card on schools shows what we spend, and we’re more cost effective.” Besides, she added, “it’s our independence that makes us different. We don’t have the same vision that PRS has for itself.”

The next PRS board meeting will be Tuesday, November 25 p.m. at 8 p.m. at John Witherspoon Middle School.

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