October 10, 2018

BOE Chair Plans New Referendum Proposal

By Donald Gilpin

As press time approached yesterday afternoon, Princeton Public Schools Board of Education (BOE) Chair Patrick Sullivan prepared to present a new compromise proposal to his Board and the community at the special BOE meeting scheduled for last night.

At a BOE forum in September, PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane had posted on the screen a quotation from Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Association President Leighton Newlin: “Let’s not have a good plan for our children become divisive for our community.”

Newlin had expressed concern about the “perfect storm” of critical needs for the schools clashing with widespread economic distress and rising taxes.

Sullivan was hopeful that his new plan would help to calm the conflict, meet the schools’ most urgent needs, and give PPS and the community time to work towards a consensus.

“I’m going to propose that we step back and look at this as a multi-year plan,” said Sullivan. Sullivan’s latest proposal would include a single question for $27M on the December 11 ballot, with the construction of the 5/6 school, the acquisition of the Thanet property, and the major expansion of Princeton High School (PHS) postponed until next year.

Sulllivan’s compromise plan represents a significant reduction from an original proposal of $129.6M and a more recent narrowed down two-part question of $27M plus $55.5M ($82.5M if both parts passed). It also represents a significantly less onerous real estate tax burden for Princeton residents, though Sullivan pointed out that another referendum would be needed in November 2019, requiring about six months lead time to formulate the ballot question.

Cochrane emphasized the importance on the December 2018 ballot proposal of “unifying the community around the needs we have identified — security and HVAC throughout the district; and $11M for needs at PHS, including four new classrooms, and upgrades to guidance, dining, and athletic areas.”

“We plan to address the long-range needs for space at the middle school and the high school in a way that honors the economic diversity in our town,” he added. “We want to bring the community together through a process that looks at the needs of the schools and also the economic concerns of the town.”

Sullivan discussed his plan. “I’m also proposing that we begin a process over the next six or seven months to give the community another chance to weigh in, as we work to actively engage the town in terms of land use, planning, and traffic, as well as concerns people have about overcrowding,” he said.

Having received positive feedback from individual BOE members, Sullivan planned to present his proposal at the start of last night’s meeting, before hearing comments from his colleagues and the public. “Whatever happens, we will come to a consensus,” he said.

He continued, “On the national level things get rammed through with a 51 percent majority, but we need a consensus. We want to take a pause and go for something we can broadly accept. We don’t want to win the battle and divide the town.”

Sullivan was confident that “a seven-month pause isn’t going to change things too much. Despite pressures of growth in the schools we could still be ready in 2022 for the population increases.” Population at PHS is projected to remain steady for the next three years before rising significantly, though growth at John Witherspoon Middle School might necessitate the use of trailers or other accommodations for a year or more beginning in 2020, according to Cochrane.

Sullivan explained the BOE’s change in thinking over the past months. “We’ve been seeking a compromise that’s broadly acceptable,” he said. “Many people feel the previous proposals have been too much for one bite.”

A group less happy about compromise and a delay in renovation and construction plans, the Yes For Princeton Schools (Y4PS) group, was planning to join the discussion last night with its petition, signed by 550 at last count, urging the BOE “to place all the critical needs facing Princeton Public Schools on the facilities referendum.”

Citing severe needs for space in the schools, Y4PS wrote, ”If the PHS expansion is not part of the December 2018 referendum, the community is not likely to have another chance to approve the necessary funding before the overcrowding becomes intolerable and leads to drastic measures.”

Cochrane expressed his hope that this group would remain engaged in the ongoing planning and would be supportive “when they see the commitment of the Board to follow through to fulfill the needs we have identified.”