August 22, 2018

BOE Set to Endorse Referendum Proposal For November Ballot

By Donald Gilpin

Amidst controversy and a variety of concerns voiced privately and publicly, the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education (BOE) is preparing to approve the final draft of its $129.6M facilities bond referendum, which will go on the November 6 ballot.

“The DOE [New Jersey Department of Education] is currently reviewing all projects associated with the referendum, and the Board looks forward to approving the ballot question at its next meeting on Tuesday, September 4,” said Superintendent Steve Cochrane.

The community’s most pressing concerns center on the cost of the building and renovation plans, and the impact on property taxes, particularly for residents who are already under financial stress. Questions have arisen about uncertainty surrounding long-term operations expenses, which go beyond the referendum price tag, and a number of residents have called for more details on various aspects of the referendum.

Cochrane addressed the ongoing demand for information and transparency, stating, “We are eager to ensure our community is informed and engaged with regard to the plans for the referendum and the associated costs. We will be offering regular tours of the high school this fall so that community members can see the current conditions of the building and more readily visualize the changes we have planned. We will also be holding additional community discussions about the referendum.”

The first information/discussion session will take place on Saturday, September 22 from 10 to 11:30 a.m. in the Princeton High School cafeteria, following a 9-10 a.m. tour of the school. The dates and times of tours and information sessions will be posted on the district’s website.

A number of the most pressing concerns were articulated by the panelists at the August 11 Joint Effort Safe Streets forum on the referendum. Leighton Newlin described the difficulty of the choice involved. “I believe in Steve Cochrane,” he said. “He’s committed and dedicated and has all the children’s best interests at heart, but Princeton is being choked by wealth and entitlement.”

Emphasizing the enormity of
Princeton taxes, Newlin continued, “No matter how valuable, moral, and just the referendum proposal might be, it’s a gut-wrenching decision on the part of lower- and moderate-income people. Also, we already have a minority gap in education and achievement, and it will be worse than ever. Where in the proposal is that going to be addressed?”

Noting a number of pressing questions, Kip Cherry stated, “We need to know a lot more.” She claimed there had been “weak stakeholder involvement” in developing and reviewing the referendum proposal and she expressed concerns about the reliability of the enrollment projections on which some of the expansion plans were based.

Cherry was particularly concerned about the cost of purchasing, upgrading, and operating the two Thanet office buildings, as well as overall long-term operating expenses that might impact taxes significantly more than projections for the bond expenses have indicated.

Panel member Joel Schwartz echoed others’ concerns, decrying “a staggering financial burden on the members of our community least able to bear its costs.” Referring to “a deeply flawed project with costly operating expenses,” he also expressed worries about the long-term costs in addition to the cost of the bond.

“What we oppose is spending money that cannot, because of poor planning and inadequate execution, produce the intended result,” he said.

As determined by the BOE at its July 17 meeting the referendum will be presented as two questions. The second question cannot pass unless the first question passes.

The first question authorizes $82.5M to fund a new 5/6 school at Valley Road; four additional classrooms at PHS; safety measures and security upgrades at all district schools; HVAC upgrades; the purchase of 15 acres and two existing office buildings at Thanet Circle for administration, maintenance, and transportation employees currently at Valley Road; and upgraded athletic facilities.

The second question authorizes $47M more for creation of additional capacity at PHS through transformation of three interior courtyards, renovations of existing space at PHS, and addition of turf to an athletic field.

“Princeton is a growing community that is defined by the quality of its schools,” Cochrane said. “I am proud of our referendum proposal which addresses the district’s pressing need for additional space in ways that foster enhanced security, sustainability, and collaboration among our students and staff, as well as active, in-depth learning. We know that ‘one size does not fit all’ for our students, and so we are eager to have spaces that support their diverse learning needs.”