Public Schools Chart Their Way Forward; “Transparency Blitz” as Year Winds Down
By Donald Gilpin
“Here’s what we’re doing. Here’s where we’re going,” said Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Board of Education (BOE) President Beth Behrend in a Monday press conference as she laid out the multiple projects and plans for the BOE in the coming days, months, and years.
Transparency, advocacy, and stewardship are high priorities for the BOE and the PPS as they move ahead, with a
difficult year behind them and a host of challenges ahead.
The past year has seen community conflict over multiple facilities referendum proposals, final passage last December of a reduced $26.9M referendum, then grappling with budget constraints and the BOE’s 6-4 approval last month of an unpopular budget that requires cuts of about 3 percent to staff and programs.
In its focus on communication and transparency, a “transparency blitz” in Behrend’s words — perhaps in response to accusations of insufficient transparency in the early stages of the referendum process a year ago — the BOE has been reaching out to the community and providing information in a variety of different forums.
At last week’s Princeton Council meeting, BOE President Beth Behrend delivered a detailed explanation of the 2019 PPS budget with follow-up for questions and comments. On the agenda at last night’s Board meeting in the Valley Road conference room, which took place after press time, was a thorough update on the referendum building and renovation projects. The district website continues to urge community members to offer their cost-savings and efficiency-enhancing ideas in responding to a short survey. Coming up this Thursday, June 6, is “Bagels with the Board,” an opportunity to meet and share ideas with members of the Board at an informal breakfast. And an extensive presentation on security in the schools is planned for next Tuesday’s June 11 Board meeting.
New Facilities Director
Also on the agenda at last night’s referendum update meeting was the introduction of David Harding as the new PPS director of district facilities, who will oversee all aspects of the referendum projects as well as supervising district-wide plant operations, facilities, and transportation operations.
Taking over on July 1 from Gary Weisman, who is retiring, Harding is currently director of facilities for the Bernards Township School District, where he has served for the past six years. Harding is a graduate of NJIT with a degree in engineering, and he has served as a project director, as well as a commissioning agent and director, for an engineering firm.
In his new role, Harding will oversee the designs, cost estimates, bid specifications, construction plans, and project implementation of the referendum projects, and will assist Superintendent Steve Cochrane to ensure thoughtful implementation, cost-effectiveness, and clear communication to the community.
“Dave brings a wealth of experience that will guide our efforts not only to maintain and enhance our facilities but to advance both learning and sustainability,” Cochrane said. “A balance of highly competent and highly caring, Dave is enthusiastic about the details of every building and every project because he recognizes that the work on our facilities is fundamentally about supporting the students, staff, and families who are in our schools each day.”
The PPS has also created a Referendum Review Team of administrators, staff, and parents for each of its six schools, with representative providing input and ideas for the ongoing construction work, while also serving as additional contacts for members of their school communities.
At last night’s meeting, project architects were scheduled to describe the current status of the referendum implementation, with some improvements scheduled to get underway this summer and others taking place over the next year.
A/C installation for the Princeton High School (PHS) gym and HVAC upgrades for Riverside Elementary School are slated for the coming months. Bids on most of the construction projects,primarily at PHS — renovation of the guidance suite, creation of a remote dining area, creation of a loft over the current fitness center, and the creation of a second floor with four new classrooms — will be going out this summer and fall, with construction planned for 2020 and 2021.
Since HVAC renovations for the elementary schools could not be accomplished in one summer without displacing a number of summer programs in the schools, Riverside was selected to pilot the HVAC installations with the other elementary schools to be completed by next summer.
Next week’s Board meeting on security in the schools will feature Jeff Gale, director of the office of school preparedness and emergency planning for the New Jersey Department of Education. The presentation will provide an overview of security in the PPS and the steps that are being taken to create a safe and secure environment. Physical changes, an important part of the referendum, include the creation of security vestibules, replacement of doors at the elementary schools, new hardware, new window configurations, and a new guest management system to check visitors’ identification.
BOE Vice President Greg Stanciewicz, who along with Behrend has been attending state-level meetings on security, related security concerns to the schools’ strategic goals of wellness and safety for students and staff. “You try to institute best practices, to reduce chances of an incident, to prepare as much as possible, and to delay and deter if necessary,” he said.
In addressing issues of security, the referendum, and other challenges ahead, Stanciewicz emphasized the value of having a first-rate team working in conjunction with community stakeholders. “Having a full, strong team in place helps us to respond to whatever comes up. We’re focusing on our strategic goals, but we’re not going to get to the right answers without bringing everyone to the table,” he added.
Cochrane emphasized the importance of stewardship “to proceed in the manner that allows us to make the best use of the resources we are entrusted with.” He pointed out, “We’re making sure we’re doing the projects right and taking the time to gather as much information as we can to leverage the expertise in our community.”