April 25, 2018

School Board Approves Referendum Proposal

By Donald Gilpin

Addressing needs for more space and major infrastructure upgrades, the Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Board of Education last week sent their proposal for a $129,863,570 bond referendum to the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) for review and approval.

On track to go to voters on October 2, the proposal, that would include more than $56M for extensive renovations to Princeton High School, about $40M for the creation of a new 5/6 School on the Valley Road site, and about $15M for upgrades at the elementary schools and John Witherspoon Middle School, was approved at the Board’s April 17 meeting by an 8-1 margin.

“Congratulations to this board,” said Board President Patrick Sullivan after the vote, that culminated a two-and-a-half-hour meeting. “Like a lot of the people who spoke tonight, I moved here because of the schools. I saw what the people before us had built, and it was wonderful. We do owe it to you, and we owe it to ourselves to maintain the excellence of this school system. And we did that tonight.”

In the 8-1 vote Board members Betsy Baglio, Beth Behrend, Debbie Bronfeld, Bill Hare, Dafna Kendal, Evelyn Spann, Greg Stankiewicz, and Patrick Sullivan voted yes to send the Board’s referendum proposal to the state. Board member Michele Tuck-Ponder voted no.

Also included in the referendum proposal are the purchase of property on Herrontown Road for maintenance, transportation, and bus parking that would be moved from Valley Road; an addition at JWMS for central administration, also currently at the Valley Road site; security improvements in all schools, heating, ventilation and air conditioning upgrades, and improvements to athletics fields and facilities.

Claiming “a critical need,” “a transformative opportunity,” and “a responsible investment,” the PPS referendum proposal will be reviewed by the NJDOE in the coming months. After suggestions and, presumably, approval from the DOE, the Princeton Board must approve what goes on the ballot 60 days prior to the October 2 public referendum vote.

If voters approve the referendum, construction would begin in the summer of 2019, with completion of the 5/6 school tentatively projected for fall of 2020, and high school renovations continuing in multiple phases through the summer of 2023.

PPS, according to Communications Director Brenda Sewell, will continue to work on refining plans for the referendum and sharing information with the community, including several presentations on dates to be determined.

In explaining her concerns with the proposal, Tuck-Ponder focused on the high price tag and the need for additional planning. She described the plan as “not right for the community, not fully fleshed out.”

She added, “We have a school plan. We should have been leading with our strategic priorities in planning this referendum. There are a lot of unknowns.” Tuck-Ponder praised the work of her colleagues and the community in planning for the referendum, and she expressed her approval for the new 5/6 school, but she warned of the consequences of the high cost.

“There are people in town for whom this will be a hardship,” she said. “For others it will be the last straw, and they will decide they have to move. If we say we value diversity — and I mean socio-economic as well as racial — we need a plan that speaks to how we maintain that diversity. I don’t think this plan does that.”

Urging the need for a “timely and right-sized” proposal, Tuck-Ponder stated, “There are people who are enthusiastic about this referendum, but there is a critical mass of people who are concerned, and we need to hear from them.”

Sullivan emphasized the thoroughness and effectiveness of the Board’s work so far on the referendum plans. He pointed out, “We have run an inclusive design process that has taken well over a year and has included input from many groups, including teachers, administrators, parents, students, community groups, and others.”

He continued, “We don’t believe that all the details are in place at this point in the process; they are not supposed to be in place yet. What we have is a very good, cost-effective, well-thought-out, high-level plan that we will continue to hone and make more cost-effective between now and July. We are all excited about ultimately delivering a project that is both efficient and really great for our community and our children.”

Estimated additional tax for the average assessed home valued at $837,074 would be about $295 for the first year, 2020; about $294 the second year; $693 in the third year; then $220 in the fourth year. Over the 30-year life of the bonds, the average estimated additional annual impact for the average assessed home value would be about $53, PPS reports.

Supporting the referendum proposal in a full-page paid advertisement in Town Topics last week, 140 residents praised the plan as “both educationally and financially sound,” and expressed appreciation for “how open and participatory the process has been.”

The statement went on to express a perspective of some older taxpayers on the bond referendum. “Many of us have older children who will not benefit directly from the new construction,” it said. “But we know that our children’s excellent education in the Princeton Public Schools was funded by those who came before us, and that each generation must help fund the public schools that will educate future generations.”

Sewell noted, “We always welcome public input and we encourage community members to attend Board meetings or email us at referendum@princetonk12.org.”