January 1, 2020

PPS Plans Ahead, Eyes Westminster Property

By Donald Gilpin

With overcrowding and increasing enrollments throughout the district, the Princeton Public Schools (PPS) have been looking for room to grow and paying attention to the changing plans of their neighbor just across Walnut Lane, the Westminster Choir College campus of Rider University.

When Rider University recently announced plans to close the Westminster site in Princeton and relocate the school to its Lawrenceville campus, protests ensued, and two pending lawsuit may prevent the University from moving the school.

At last month’s PPS Board of Education (BOE) meeting, Superintendent Steve Cochrane cited growth projections of several hundred students for the district over the next five years and emphasized the challenges of managing and finding space for that growth.

“We need to plan for that growth in ways that consider numerous factors, including facility and play area expansion, land use throughout the community, sustainability, potential redistricting, educational vision, and, of course, affordability and diversity,” he said.

Speaking specifically about the possible availability of the property currently occupied by Westminster, Cochrane continued, “As stewards for the Princeton Public Schools, we have a responsibility to be prepared for that possibility and for the implications of having potentially 23 acres of land become available immediately next door to our middle school and high school. Consequently, we have been doing our homework.”

Cochrane stated that the PPS and Rider, with their lawyers, have had several “fact-finding” conversations over the past six months “to gain a better sense of the legal issues relating to the property as well as the proposed move of the Choir College to Lawrenceville.”

“The Choir College has been a great neighbor and partner to our schools for decades,” Cochrane continued. “We often share facilities, and for years students from the Choir College taught music at our middle school. If the Choir College were to remain in Princeton, we would be delighted to continue that partnership.”

Cochrane noted that Rider currently intends to keep a portion of the property and buildings in Princeton for certain activities related to Westminster, including the Westminster Conservatory of Music, which educates more than 2,000 children and adults.

Cochrane went on to explain that PPS will be undergoing an extensive community-wide planning process over the next six months, considering multiple scenarios. “What those scenarios will be, when the Board will decide, and the timeline for implementation of any single scenario is yet to be determined. As we move into community conversations about the future of our schools and of our town, the Westminster property, or some portion of it, will likely be discussed.” 

PPS Planning

Emphasizing that the planning process had no preconceived outcomes, would generate multiple possibilities, and would involve the whole community, Cochrane reviewed three stages to take place between now and June 2020 in collaboration with the planning firm Milone & MacBroom (M&M).

In the initial fact-finding stage, through January, M&M is reviewing enrollment projections, housing growth, the status of district facilities, building capacity, and educational programming.

From the end of January through March, M&M will be developing various scenarios in collaboration with the Board, the community, and district professionals “to generate a vision for our schools, to prioritize needs, and to review preliminary alternatives for achieving our goals,” Cochrane said.

From April to early June, the planners will narrow down the scenarios and provide a range of recommendations. 

Cochrane pointed out that there are three elements involved in the critical process of ongoing community engagement and input.

A technical advisory committee, a kind of steering committee comprised of district professionals and community experts, will help the consultants navigate the complexities of the planning process. Their first meeting with M&M will be on Friday, January 10.

With a goal of ensuring that all voices are heard — and that people are informed and engaged — a group of community liaisons will also be formed, representing a variety of stakeholders throughout the community.

The third element of community engagement will be a series of interactive workshops, informational meetings, surveys, and focus groups.

The first public forum will be held on Saturday, January 25, from 9 to 10:30 a.m., in the Princeton High School cafeteria. During that workshop, the M&M consultants will present their findings and impressions so far and engage the attendees to work together to establish goals and priorities.