July 7, 2021

Referendum “Likely Less Than $20 Million,” As Schools Prepare to Replace Leaky Roofs

By Donald Gilpin

The Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Board of Education (BOE) is committed to planning ahead, working towards a July 29 deadline to submit an application to the state to place a major maintenance bond referendum on the ballot in January 2022, so that work to replace leaking roofs at several schools can start by the summer of 2022.

The BOE is considering a cost figure “likely less than $20 million,” but further discussion must take place in the coming weeks to determine the work to be done, when it must be done, and the estimated cost. The BOE anticipates that with debt from prior referendums maturing on February 1, 2022 and 2023, all the work can be done without increasing debt service from current levels.

“Princeton Public Schools will use the next three weeks to evaluate the scope of a potential maintenance referendum,” the district noted in a July 6 statement. “It is anticipated that on July 27 the Board of Education will authorize a submission to the New Jersey Department of Education by Spiezle, the district’s architect, detailing preliminary eligible costs.”

A number of the roofs in question are approaching 26 years old, already beyond warranty, and several other leaky roofs are about 17 years old with warranties soon to expire. Other urgent maintenance projects include repairing facades at some schools, repairing siding and gutters, and replacing “end-of-life” building systems.

“This work is completely necessary,” said Business Administrator Matt Bouldin at the June 29 Board meeting, noting many problems with leaky classrooms during the past school year. “Last fall, trying to get our kids back into the schools — it was not a pretty sight. And roof leaks deteriorate the structure.”

“It’s not acceptable to see custodians putting out buckets at Littlebrook during storms,” added David Harding, director of plant and operations. He cited “an astronomical number” of leaks and emphasized the need to replace roofs before multiple leaks occur. He pointed out that roofs at the middle school and Riverside are in good shape, but roofs on the other four buildings are problematic. The Littlebrook roof is the oldest and most leaky.

The BOE anticipates savings of up to 34 percent from the state’s reimbursement on costs for roof replacement and other maintenance included in the referendum. The work, taking place only during the summers in order to not disrupt classes, would be spread out over the next five years.

The Board has also discussed the advantages of regular maintenance referendums, which many school districts use in order to keep school buildings in good condition. The costs of not doing roof repairs and other urgent maintenance could ultimately cost the district more money in emergency repairs. Emergency maintenance is not eligible for state subsidies.The district is also looking forward to future savings in the possibility of installing rooftop solar panels as roofs are replaced.

Sustainable Princeton Executive Director Molly Jones applauded the possibility of solar panels on the schools’ new roofs. “It looks as if they could put on panels that could provide up to 40 percent of their overall energy needs,” she said. “This is a substantial sum that could save money for taxpayers.”

She continued, “We’re definitely enthused that the schools and their leaders are thinking this way. We think it’s a very smart move to invest in the roofs.”

Jones urged the district “to maximize the work that they’re doing” and to put solar panels on as many of the buildings as possible as soon as possible. “The more you do, there’s an economy of scale, so it would really be wonderful if they could do that as quickly as possible,” she said. She also urged the district to make sure that the new roofs are well insulated.

Jones went on to praise the school leadership’s foresight and its focus on long-term planning. “They’re really doing a great job of taking the school in a forward-thinking direction, thinking of the future, not just plugging the holes for the moment,” she said.