Schools: Referendum Will Cost $137M, Annual Budget $98M, Taxes Increasing
By Donald Gilpin
Princeton Public Schools (PPS) have projected a cost of just over $137 million for an October 2 facilities referendum that would include a new 5/6 school at Valley Road, major renovations to Princeton High School, infrastructure and security improvements for all school buildings, and relocation of central office administration.
More than $24 million of the referendum costs will be funded by grants from the state. Starting in 2020, taxpayers will see an additional $678 for the average assessed home valued at $837,074, as old and new debt overlap for four years, rising to $823 in 2021. By 2023 the additional cost will be $319 for the average assessed home.
“If the district takes on no additional debt, from 2023 through when the new bonds mature in 2049, the estimated additional cost to taxpayers will continue to decrease gradually,” PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane wrote in a March 21 letter to families, community members, and staff. “Over the course of 30 years, the average annual additional cost on an average assessed home will be $167.23.”
In his letter and in remarks to the Board of Education at their March 20 meeting, Cochrane emphasized the urgent needs caused by growing enrollments and the importance of responsible investment in the future of PPS. “This is a defining moment for our district and public education in our community,” he said. “We are called to meet the challenges of growing enrollment and the needs of our aging buildings. Over the past two years, the Board has worked to create a plan for a referendum that is cost-effective and addresses all of the needed infrastructure improvements for each of our school buildings. We believe this referendum is a wise and responsible investment for our students now, and for the future of education in our community.”
He went on to warn of the consequences of neglecting these current needs. “Without this investment, our schools that are already over capacity will be squeezed even tighter. We will see growing class sizes, reduced electives, and may be forced to take other actions that would compromise the educational excellence that is the hallmark of our district. Our plan adds the space and safety enhancements that we urgently need in a way that is best for our students and staff, while being respectful of the tax burden on our community.”
The Board will submit its plans to the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) next month. The community can continue to provide feedback by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. After submission of plans to the NJDOE, PPS will present plans for the referendum to the Princeton Planning Board. After NJDOE approval, anticipated in July, the Board will finalize the ballot question. Between now and October 2 PPS will continue to communicate plans and referendum information to all voters, including presentations in the community on dates to be determined.
Also last week, PPS announced a tentative budget for the 2018-19 school year, which calls for a 3.63 percent increase in the tax levy, resulting in an annual increase of $159 on the average assessed home of $837,074.
The final total budget of approximately $98 million, which Cochrane described as “austere and the result of many tough choices,” will be presented in detail at the April 24 Board meeting. Cochrane emphasized the Board’s belief that the proposed budget responsibly fulfills the goal to “balance its fiscal responsibility to taxpayers with its commitment to the high-quality education for our children.”
Cochrane explained that the increase is mostly the result of rising fixed costs incurred by the district, including the contractual increase in salaries for staff, increased costs of health benefits, and the annual and increased cost of the charter school. The continuing rise in enrollment allows the tax levy to exceed the 2 percent state cap.
“Like every year, but this year in particular, the Board had to make difficult decisions to balance the budget,” Cochrane said. “Currently there are no new staff positions included in the budget, despite our enrollment, which has risen approximately 10 percent over the past five years. Moreover, $500,000 will be cut from the budget for next year through staff attrition. We were helped in balancing the budget by an increase in state aid of just over $500,000, but our numbers are still very tight.”
The full Board plans to vote on the budget at its April 24 meeting.