June 13, 2018

Princeton, Cranbury Examine Send-Receive Schools Agreement

By Donald Gilpin

With a June 30 deadline approaching for renewal of the Princeton-Cranbury send-receive schools agreement, both school boards have been reviewing the current contract and the possibility of extending it through 2030.

The Princeton Public Schools Board of Education (BOE) was planning to address the matter at last night’s meeting, but it was not known at press time whether or not a vote was taken on the issue.

At a community conversation, “Understanding the Princeton-Cranbury Send-Receive Agreement,” sponsored by the BOE Saturday morning in the Princeton Public Library, about 80 people listened to an informative 25-minute presentation and engaged in an hour-long follow up discussion.

“When you look from a superficial point of view it seems like there might be an easy solution to the question,” said Board member Beth Behrend, “but the details provide a different picture. It’s complicated, but it’s not helpful to say that without explaining why. The library session was planned to help people understand the choices. Hopefully this meeting helped to get the information out so that the public understands.”

The Princeton-Cranbury agreement was signed in 1988, and last year Cranbury, which does not have a high school, paid $4,813,480 to send 289 students to Princeton High School, according to information presented at Saturday’s forum.

The presentation highlighted financial and educational benefits of the agreement for both districts, including economies of scale, with Cranbury finding it not cost-efficient to provide a high school for fewer than 300 students and the Cranbury tuition payment providing Princeton schools with their second largest source of revenue (after the tax levy) to support a wide range of programs and expenses.

The presentation went on to discuss alternatives to renewal, which could include letting the contract expire in 2020, in which case the send-receive relationship would continue indefinitely on the same terms; or taking steps to terminate, which would involve legal action, a feasibility study, identification of a new district to accept Cranbury students, approval from the New Jersey Commissioner of Education, and the possibility of further appeals and legal action.

The Cranbury tuition, currently $17,439 per student, determined by the NJ DOE, is less than the $18,596 “actual per pupil cost,” according to state of New Jersey calculations, but under New Jersey state law Princeton cannot charge Cranbury more than the $17,439 figure. Cranbury taxpayers, however, do pay separately for out-of-district special needs placement costs and busing, among other things.

The BOE presentation examined cuts in staff and programs that would be necessitated by loss of the revenue from Cranbury, and pointed out that even without Cranbury, PHS and other district schools would continue to be overcrowded, according to demographic projections, which indicate a decrease in Cranbury students coming to PHS in future years.

The information session continued with a discussion of pros and cons of each of the options, noting particularly the context of the facilities bond referendum scheduled for October 2. The interest on capital bonds from a referendum is included in the calculation of tuition charges, which means that any interest on improvements made at PHS through a referendum will be factored into tuition calculations for Cranbury students in the future.

“This was a great example of civil and open discourse — very constructive,” Board member Greg Stankiewicz said, emphasizing the need for continuing transparency and objectivity in examining the issues.

Noting the limitations of time for public input at school board meetings, Behrend added, “In the forum Saturday I think people felt they were heard, and I think everybody who wanted to speak had time to speak.”

Putting the send-receive discussion into the larger context of the upcoming referendum and the future of the school district, Behrend concluded, “The referendum is a watershed moment for the community. Together we can move forward, but it’s going to take all of us working together to face the challenges.”

Referendum Plans Meeting

The district will be holding a town hall meeting to discuss plans for the referendum next Monday, June 18, at John Witherspoon Middle School (JWMS) at 7 p.m. In a letter last week inviting families and staff to the town hall, Superintendent Steve Cochrane announced that the district had finalized an agreement to purchase a 15-acre property on Thanet Circle as part of the referendum proposal.

Cochrane noted the “benefits to PPS and taxpayers” afforded by the size, location, existing buildings, rental income, and future flexibility of the Thanet property, which replaces earlier plans to purchase a smaller property on Herrontown Road and construct an addition at JWMS for administration.

“The Board believes this much larger piece of property, located near the Princeton Shopping Center and minutes from our schools, offers short and long-term opportunities for PPS and our community,” Cochrane wrote. “If the referendum is approved, the property will provide space for central office administration, maintenance, and transportation. In the future, the property opens up other possibilities, such as additional athletic fields and a self-funding preschool center.