October 3, 2018

Student Needs, Economic Stress Clash

By Donald Gilpin

“There is a perfect storm in Princeton,” said Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Association (WJNA) Co-chair Leighton Newlin in introducing Saturday’s community conversation on the Princeton Public Schools referendum. “Many people are in distress with rising taxes, and at the same time the schools are in need.”

With the Princeton Board of Education (BOE) approaching a special session next Tuesday, October 9, by the end of which they intend to finalize the ballot question for a December 11 referendum vote, what that ballot question will include, and how it will be presented remain in doubt.

Newlin described the clash as “the most significant issue our town has faced in years.” Also in doubt is the answer to the question posed in the WJNA announcement of the forum: “Can we arrive at a solution or compromise that works for all?”

What is not in doubt is “the challenge,” as PPS has presented it, of “balancing student needs in aging schools” with the stressed economic context in the town of Princeton.

With the most recent new building, John Witherspoon Middle School, constructed in 1965 and Princeton High School more than 90 years old, there is a compelling argument for renovations. Superintendent Steve Cochrane described to the gathering of about 100 at the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church the PPS’s needs for safety and security, health and wellness, and space for learning.

He also noted the economic reality of exceptional economic diversity in Princeton, high property values, yearly reassessments, new limits on property tax deductions, already high taxes, and three more years remaining on PPS’s existing debt.

Despite the economic adversity, however, Cochrane stated that with demographic projections predicting 700 to 800 more students in the next eight years, “Doing nothing is not an option.”

The “current consideration” of the BOE is to narrow the scope of its original plan for a $129.6M referendum package, to focus on the most essential projects: security, HVAC upgrades, PHS renovations, and athletic basics with four new classrooms and guidance department renovations at PHS, as well as the construction of a new school at Valley Road and the purchase and basic renovation of the Thanet Road property to house administration, maintenance, and transportation departments.

PPS would continue to plan for more extensive expansion at PHS, but would throttle back on implementation.

The total bill for the narrowed proposal would be $82.5M, with that plan possibly divided into two questions to be voted on separately: No. 1 including just the essentials at $27M and No. 2 including the 5/6 school and the purchase of Thanet. State aid figures are pending, but the tax impact for individual homeowners would be significantly reduced with the narrowed scope of referendum plans.

BOE Chair Patrick Sullivan echoed other calls for compromise and seeking common ground. “What can we come together and agree on today?” he asked. “The schools need upgrades. How can we come together and find common ground? It’s a financially stressful time. We need a compromise. How can we find common ground that’s right for our children and also for vulnerable tax payers? We want to break up the referendum question in a way that allows people to compromise.”

Compromise, however, is not on everyone’s agenda. A community group calling itself Yes for Princeton Schools (Y4PS) has gathered more than 450 signatures on a petition in response to the BOE’s suggestion that they might reduce the referendum and postpone expansion and some renovations at PHS.

“If the PHS expansion is not part of the December 2018 referendum, the group fears it is unlikely that Princeton voters will have another opportunity to approve the necessary funding before overcrowding in the high school becomes intolerable and leads to drastic measures, such as morning and evening shifts for students,” Y4PS stated in an October 1 press release.

The discussion Saturday, which included many speakers and a wide range of perspectives, continued for about four hours. Last Tuesday’s BOE meeting, devoted mostly to questions and commentary on the referendum, continued for more than five hours. And the discussion continues.

“Caught in the middle of all this are the children,” Newlin noted. “If the children aren’t winners, then we are all losers.” Calling for some “out-of-the-box thinking,” Newlin went on, “How about if we the community rally behind our children and the schools and petition Princeton University to help us finance this situation, with a $30M gift and a $30M low-interest or no-interest loan?”

Cochrane summed up the BOE’s dilemma as it works to compose a ballot question that provides a suitable choice for Princeton residents when they vote on December 11.

The Board continues to listen to the community,” he wrote in an email Tuesday. “Following their consideration to narrow the scope of the referendum, they are hearing more and more from those who recognize the need to expand the capacity of the high school and to make more substantial renovations to that building.

“At the same time they are hearing the voices of those concerned about the tax impact of the debt payment, particularly in year three, of the pay-down schedule associated with the full referendum. That tax impact will affect some households more than others, and one solution discussed on Saturday was to create a private fund to assist those homeowners.”

He concluded, “There was a belief expressed at the session on Saturday that we can come together as a town to find the right way forward — one that will support the needs of our children and continue to honor the diversity of our town. I believe we will find that path.”