October 2, 2019

BOE Votes 6-3 to Hire Planning Firm

By Donald Gilpin

At a four-hour meeting last week, the Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Board of Education (BOE) voted 6-3 to approve the hiring of the educational consulting firm Milone & Macbroom (M&M) to help develop a plan to address the challenges of growth and overcrowding.

Based in Cheshire, Connecticut, M&M specializes in working with school districts on short- and long-term planning and has been cited by BOE members and others as being especially effective in engaging the whole community in the planning process. They will work with the district to develop a plan over the next seven months at a total cost not to exceed $143,605.

BOE President Beth Behrend praised the BOE decision, citing the need for experienced assistance with the complex planning challenges ahead. “I’m excited to have this resource in place to assist the district in dealing with the growth issue,” she said.

Recalling extensive controversy over last year’s facilities referendum, which was eventually scaled down and approved in December 2018, Behrend continued, “Last year the community spoke loud and clear is saying that we need to validate our claims and get the community involved. M&M will help us do that. They will help us in collaborating so that we plan in a way that’s forward-looking and sensible and within the means of the community.”

She went on to point out the urgency of the situation, noting that “overcrowding is impacting the education programming already. We’re trying to be proactive.”

BOE Disagreement

BOE members Debbie Bronfeld, Daniel Dart, and Bill Hare, along with some supporters among speakers from the public, expressed concerns about the expense and the timing of hiring a planning firm.

“Why are we rushing into this?” Bronfeld asked, urging that the district slow down and focus on more immediate issues, including careful use of the current $27M facilities referendum funds.

Dart also warned against a distraction from working on the current referendum, recommending a focus on immediate priorities and establishing more clear parameters for the planning. He questioned the BOE’s demographic figures and growth projections, calling for the proposal to hire a planning consultant to be deferred for a year to the 2020-21 budget cycle.

Hare joined Bronfeld and Dart in
suggesting a slowing down of the process with consideration of hiring a planning consultant “maybe six months from now.”

“We’re fortunate in this town to have people with strong convictions,” Behrend observed. “Unanimity is overrated. Even those who voted ‘no’ understand the need for this planning. It was a question of timing and cost, but we all understand the need.”

Board member Brian McDonald emphasized the urgency of that need. Describing a visit to Littlebrook Elementary School, which is currently 61 students over capacity and suffering the effects of overcrowding, McDonald said, “I don’t think we can wait. I don’t think we can be responsible and do our duty and kick this can down the road.”

Praising M&M’s emphasis on community engagement, McDonald continued, “I think this is an incredibly cost-effective investment. We have to get started now. It would be irresponsible of us not to move forward with this.”

BOE Vice President Greg Stankiewicz concurred with McDonald, adding, “We need to figure it out together, and this is our opportunity to do just that. The time to act is upon us. I can’t in good conscience say let’s put it off one more year. This firm is the way to bring us all together and think about these challenges together.”

BOE member Michele Tuck-Ponder, who frequently questioned and argued against BOE referendum proposals last year, applauded the BOE for laying the groundwork to develop a sound plan. “I don’t like spending $140,000 either, but I’d rather do that than make a $130M mistake,” she said.

She continued, “I don’t think we benefit by waiting,” and she went on to emphasize the importance of working with M&M to involve as many local residents as possible. “I want to be sure that all voices in this town are heard. All those voices are not in this room, but this company assured me that they would reach into every neighborhood, every demographic of this town, and hear those voices.”

Cochrane’s Proposal

In presenting his initial recommendation to the BOE to retain M&M “to assist us in gathering the data, engaging the community, and developing the scenarios that will position us to make the very best, most fiscally sound decisions about our schools,” PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane highlighted four crucial issues in planning for more than 400 additional students over the next 10 years in schools that are already over capacity. 

He pointed out the probable need for redistricting to address uneven housing development in elementary areas and also “longstanding racial and economic imbalances”; the need for facility expansion, possibly meaning additions at various schools, new schools, or both, with significant impact on taxes; the consideration of land acquisition and/or sale, raising “huge questions, the answers to which will affect the landscape in Princeton forever”; and the necessity of planning in collaboration with the municipality and other public and private partners.

Cochrane noted that the BOE had enlisted a team of community experts who have been assisting them in the planning process, but he said that those experts unanimously advised the hiring of a professional planning firm. “They felt the task was too complex and too important not to have the expertise of a professional planner,” he said.

“The cost of a planner is a responsible investment and one we can afford,” Cochrane concluded. “It is an investment in making the right decisions on behalf of our kids and on behalf of our community.”