March 13, 2013

Board Adopts Budget, Rejects Valley Road Plan

Meeting in open session last week in the cafeteria at the John Witherspoon Middle School (JWMS), The Princeton Public Schools Board of Education adopted a tentative schools budget for the 2013-14 school year and rejected a plan for the Valley Road School building.

The $84,248,261 budget reflects an increase in overall spending of just over 2 percent compared to last year, requiring $70,320,054 to be raised from taxes. It is expected to result in a tax hike of $148.59 for an average Princeton home assessed at $799,600.

The budget takes into account increased costs to the school district of utilities and employee health benefits. According to Finance Committee Chair Dan Haughton there will be no job cuts or cuts to school programs.

In creating the budget, the district used 2013-14 state aid figures. Superintendent of Schools Judith A. Wilson noted the loss of some $87,000 in federal funding because of sequestration. She called the amount “significant in a very tight budget.”

The budget now goes to the Executive County Superintendent of Schools for approval. A public hearing is set to place at 8 p.m. on March 21 in the JWMS cafeteria.

In spite of the 9 to 1 vote by the Board against their proposal to turn the Valley Road School building into a Community Center that would serve as a hub for area non-profits, advocates for the plan say they will not give up on their goal.

The Board adopted a seven-page resolution rejecting the 208-page proposal from the Valley Road School Adaptive Reuse Committee.

The meeting was attended by Kip Cherry, president of the Valley Road School Community Center, Inc, the 501c3 non-profit formed by the Valley Road Adaptive Re-Use Committee, and by supporter John Clearwater, a former member of the Board of Education in the 1990s and one time Board president.

Ms. Cherry urged the Board to table or delay the vote on their resolution in response to the proposal. Dan Haughton, the only Board member to vote against the resolution rejecting the proposal, supported Ms. Cherry’s request.

But in spite of Ms. Cherry’s plea, the board voted to reject the proposal, citing the Committee’s failure to provide “credible, documented assurances that it has or can secure funding adequate for the extremely extensive” building renovations. According to a consultant hired by the district, some $10.8 million would be required to renovate the building.

Another thorny issue was zoning. The committee had asked that the district be responsible for seeking the necessary zoning changes for the building’s re-use as a community center.

According to Mr. Clearwater, the group will submit an amended or a new plan.

“It’s not over,” said Mr. Clearwater, whose background is in planning, engineering, construction, and public works.

Interviewed by telephone some days after the Board’s rejection of the plan, Mr. Clearwater said that there would be more discussions and further submissions to the Board of Education. “If the Board gets responsive answers about parking and zoning then we should be able to move forward,” he said.

“Parking is a problem in this area that I call the ‘Valley Road complex,’ a resource that has been underused for generations,” said Mr. Clearwater, who stated that he would be happy to serve on the consolidated Princeton committee that has been formed to address parking issues in Princeton where there is an increasing demand for space.

“We see this building as a community facility not simply as Board of Education-owned and this is a test-case for a whole new normal of how we deal with the stewardship of public property in Princeton,” said Mr. Clearwater. “We have many underutilized buildings including the ‘Taj Mahal’ of the new Township Building. Public real-estate is a publicly owned asset. It’s use has an impact on the public purse.”

Former mayor of Princeton Township Richard Woodbridge, a staunch advocate for the Community Center plan, could not attend last week’s meeting. He commented by telephone: “I am not at all discouraged. In fact, I think we’ve made some progress in that the Board has more specifically outlined its concerns. I don’t think it has thrown out the idea of working with us. From what I’ve learned from other towns like Chatham, school boards have great separation anxieties with their old buildings. It’s a question of patience and trying to get people to work together in the same direction. Everybody should agree that the building left vacant is not doing any good, and it could be. Corner House and the Rescue Squad have dropped by the wayside and I believe that we are the only viable alternative.”

Currently, the Board of Education has no other proposals for the building, although a task force led by Fire Commissioner Lance Liverman is looking into the needs of the firehouse nearby on Witherspoon Street. The building houses Princeton Public Schools offices, and tenants Corner House and Princeton Community Television. Corner House, plans to move to the old Borough Hall at the end of April. Princeton Community Television has been offered space there too.

The school board has not ruled out using the building for educational purposes.

“This is not an exercise in instant gratification; we expect to work and work until this is done,” said Mr. Woodbridge.