September 12, 2018

Schools Face Resistance to Referendum Plans

By Donald Gilpin

The conflict seems to intensify as postponement of the Princeton Board of Education (BOE) vote on Princeton Public Schools’ (PPS) proposed $129.6M bond issue, and consequent postponement of the ballot issue until after the November 6 general election, gives both sides the opportunity to develop and clarify their cases.

Last week, shortly before its Tuesday night meeting at which it was planning to vote to place the referendum on the November ballot, the BOE was informed that due to a backlog the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) was still reviewing the district’s plans and that the referendum would have to be postponed until after the November ballot. 

“The NJDOE has assured us that approvals are forthcoming,” said PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane.  “The Board is taking advantage of this opportunity to continue thoughtful dialogue with the public and to chart a path forward that serves our students and is sustainable for our community.”

He continued, “We look forward to communicating more with the community and want to make them aware of the following opportunities for engagement: Saturday, September 22 at 10 a.m. in the High School Cafeteria; Saturday, September 29  at 9:30 a.m. at the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church; and Thursday, October 11 at 7:30 p.m. in the John Witherspoon Auditorium.”

Although the referendum ballot question was removed from last Tuesday’s BOE agenda, a sizable crowd arrived to talk about the referendum, with some 32 speakers asking the BOE to reconsider the project.  A petition with 140 signatures, detailing concerns about the referendum plan, was handed to the BOE, and about 30 more residents have signed in the past week.

Drafted by a small group in opposition to placing the referendum in its current form on a ballot, the petition included many of the questions and arguments that have been raised at various forums, in the media, and in a variety of discussions over the past months.

The petition charges the BOE with failing to answer questions about “flaws in the demographic study…which wrongly predict higher enrollments than would be supported by a correct study”; lack of information on operations costs of the proposed work, including the new 5/6 school; the full impact of the referendum bill on individual tax bills; additional details on the high school renovation; specific costs associated with artificial turf fields; and information about the proposed work to be done at the Thanet property, including anticipated income and expenses for operation and lease-up costs.

Claiming that “the BOE still needs to do its homework,” the petition calls for a smaller referendum proposal to “address real necessities only, as well as the difficult tax environment in which Princeton finds itself” for a ballot vote in November 2019.

Two candidates in the upcoming BOE election have added their voices to the opposition, with Mary Clurman, in a mass email, posing her own 10 questions for the BOE, and Daniel J. Dart issuing an “open letter” to parents of PPS students, supporting the petition and calling for withdrawal of the current referendum “plan that lacks critical community support.”

Cranbury SRA Controversy

As the referendum debate continues, additional controversy has arisen over the BOE June 12 decision to renew the district’s sending-receiving agreement (SRA) with Cranbury, which since 1990 has brought students from Cranbury to Princeton HighSchool.

Corrine O’Hara and Joel Schwartz on Monday filed a Petition of Appeal with the New Jersey Commissioner of Education, seeking to repeal the SRA renewal on the grounds that it is “both unjustified and harmful.”  The petition also contends that the Cranbury representative on the Princeton BOE, Evelyn Spann, has repeatedly voted illegally on matters upon which she is barred from voting.

The petitioners contend that the BOE based its decision on “inadequate and inaccurate information”; that the SRA has a negative financial impact on Princeton taxpayers; and that it “has overburdened PHS facilities, exacerbates racial imbalance, perpetuates existing minority achievement gaps, and generally creates an inequitable outcome for Princeton residents.”

In responding to the Petition of Appeal by O’Hara and Schwartz, Cochrane said, “We are currently in the process of reviewing the petition with our attorney but do not believe the lawsuit has any merit.  We look forward to a favorable decision from the commissioner of education.”