Residents in favor of the passage of next month’s $27.5 million referendum being held by the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District have formed a group to lobby in favor of their position.##M:[more]##

The referendum, to be held on Tuesday, January 24, will give voters in both townships an opportunity to decide whether the school district should bond funds for repairs and renovations at district schools.

The group — called the Citizens Referendum Team (CRT) — hopes to inform members of the community about the details of the referendum and encourage its passage. Co-chairs are Anthony Fleres and Chris Yan of Plainsboro, and Diane Hasling and Andy Lupo from West Windsor.

CRT was created in the same mold as committees formed in 1993 and 1996 to support school district building referendums. Some members of those committees have gone on to elected office, including Plainsboro Deputy Mayor Neil Lewis, who served on the 1993 group, and school board member Stan Katz, who served on the 1996 committee.

These groups do what the school district cannot — urge people to vote in favor of the referendum. State law prohibits governmental entities, including school districts, from advocating positions on issues that are being put up for vote. The CRT is not funded by the school district and relies on donations from volunteers supporting the passage of the referendum.

“We have a cross section of different members of the community who feel that it is important that the facilities plan to be funded by the referendum be approved,” says Hasling, a member of the WW-P Board of Education between 2001 and 2004. “What we’re doing supplements the information the district is providing. It’s good to have parent to parent, and taxpayer to taxpayer dialogues and explain why the referendum is necessary.”

“Having served on the school board, I have been aware of these needs for years, and it was something we tried to work on while I was on the board,” Hasling says, adding that it was almost impossible to keep taxes down while at the same time make the improvements and repairs. “The board has been very aware of the tax situation in both communities. Part of the timing (of the referendum) is that it will not increase tax for debt service. These bonds would come in when older bonds are retiring.”

District officials have said that the referendum will not increase taxes, because the debt service for the repairs and renovations would be incurred at the same time that the bonds for the Community Middle and Millstone River schools are paid off.

The referendum is split into two questions. The first asks for authorization to issue $25.2 million in bonds to make improvements at both high schools and three elementary schools.

The second question, which is contingent on the approval of the first, would authorize $2.3 million in bonds for the installation of artificial turf on the sports fields at both high schools.

Most of the funding, some $18.9 million, is earmarked for renovations and improvements to High School South. Other schools included in the referendum are Dutch Neck, $4.1 million; Maurice Hawk, $1.04 million; Wicoff, $663,"761, and High School North, $394,"199.

Improvements at South include five new closed classrooms, renovations to the current open space classrooms, a new auditorium, a new gymnasium, and a new outdoor “bubble-type” pool enclosure to replace the existing enclosure. If the referendum is approved, officials anticipate that work will take three to four years.

Hasling says that the CRT’s co-chairs are a diverse group able to address the community from different perspectives.

A full-time parent, she has two children attending High School South and a child at Village School. She holds a degree from Princeton University, where she majored in electrical engineering and computer science, and a masters degree from Stanford University in computer science and artificial intelligence.

Community involvement includes volunteer work with the Cub Scouts, church activities, and the PTA/PTSA at Village and South. She was also involved in the effort to lobby for a K-5 configuration for the district’s elementary schools in the early 2000s and was a leader of the Keep K-5 Alive group.

She is active in the Princeton Alumni Association, co-chaired her class’ 25th reunion in 2004, is class president, and a member of the Princeton Alumni Council Executive Committee.

“We each have an understanding of different pieces of the district,” Hasling says. “For example, since I have two children at South, we have been very involved in different activities there.”

“Andy Lupo,” she continues, “has been very involved with athletics at the town and school level. He can come from the perspective of the parents who are involved in those activities.”

Lupo, a resident of West Windsor since 1986 with his wife Carolyn, is the long-time president of the West Windsor Little League. He is a graduate of the University of Scranton and works at HVB Capital Markets in New York in public finance. His son Ryan is a junior at South, and was star running back on the Pirates football team this year. Son Jon is a freshmen at Washington and Lee University.

Lupo’s other community activities include membership on the West Windsor Parking Authority and the Mayor’s Open Space Utilization Task Force.

“We all agree our education system is excellent but some of our older facilities are in need of major renovations and improvements,” says Lupo. “I think parents in our townships want all of the children to have similar learning opportunities regardless of the North or South ‘path’ that they are on.”

“Clearly you will not please everyone with each decision that is made,” Lupo adds. “It’s easy to criticize from the sidelines without getting involved. We need to move forward on projects that serve our community. My boys have had a very good experience within the district. I think we should all work to ensure that the younger children will have equal opportunities.”

Yan, a five-year resident of Plainsboro, works in Forest Laboratories in Jersey City. A chemical engineer, he holds a a PhD from Cambridge. His daughter attends High School North and his son is a student at Community Middle School.

“I got involved in this effort after reviewing the assessment of the school facilities,” says Yan. “I truly think that the upgrade and expansion are necessary. It’s a wise investment in our schools and in our community.”

Fleres has been a resident of Plainsboro since 1993 with his wife, Marcia. A civil engineer, he manages the Newark office of the URS Corporation. He holds a Bachelor of Engineering degree from CCNY and an MBA from the University of Connecticut.

The couple have two children in the school district: Mark, who attends Grover Middle School; and Amanda at Town Center Elementary.

“My wife and I have always had an active interest in the quality of our schools. When I heard that a group was forming to promote passage of the referendum I wanted to help,” says Fleres. “In the 12 years that we lived in the district we’ve watched the area grow, and have seen four new schools open (High School North, Village, Grover and Town Center) and additions get added to most of the others. I have seen the improvements and renovations this referendum is intended to accomplish and believe it’s necessary for maintaining the high-quality school system that brought us to the area.”

“Virtually all of the money is going to the four oldest buildings in the district, giving the students there the learning environment we’ve come to expect,” says Fleres.

The group sponsored a forum at High School South on Wednesday, December 14, to provide information on the plans and conduct a tour of the areas to be renovated at High School South.

“Our primary goal is to inform people about details of the facilities plan so they understand what is encompassed,” said Hasling before the meeting. “We will also try to share stories to make it real. For example, the boys and girls basketball teams have to take turns as to who can practice because there’s not enough room for them to practice at the same time. One team practices after school, and the other has to come back later in the evening.”

“The orchestra,” she adds, “can’t all fit on stage or in the practice rooms at once. The only time they can all practice together is when they have a concert at North.”

She also points out that with recent changes in New Jersey election law regarding absentee ballots, voters can cast their ballots by mail. Under the new law, any person who is unable to go to the polls on election day may apply for an absentee ballot by completing an application and mailing it to their county clerk by mail up to seven days prior to the election. Applications for absentee ballots can be downloaded at www.njelections.org/absentee_doe.html.

A voter may also apply in person to the county clerk until 3 p.m. the day before the election. The ballot must be returned to the county clerk by election day. Faxed copies are not allowed since an original signature is required.

“We’re hoping a lot of our college students will take the opportunity to submit an absentee ballot,” says Hasling. “Obviously, I’m hoping they’ll vote yes.”

One of the more controversial components of the plan is a new auditorium at South, originally called a “performing arts center.”

“It wouldn’t be the type of state of the art performing arts center that Montgomery (high school) has,” says Hasling. “It would be an auditorium, very similar to what is at North. We’ve found that the North auditorium is very functional and serves the school quite well.”

Currently, the South auditorium, with a capacity of about 600, can only fit one grade-level class at time, says Hasling. The proposed auditorium would have a larger stage and a capacity of more than 800, enough to fit half the student body for assemblies and other events.

Once the new structure is built plans call for a portion of the old auditorium to be partitioned off for study halls. The existing stage area would become a performing arts classroom, and the current performing arts classrooms would be used for music classes. The small stage could also be used for smaller productions, like the annual Senior One Acts program.

Committee members also stress the need for the artificial turf fields that are the subject of the second question.

“What’s being proposed is very different from the old Astro-turf,” says Hasling. “These fields are made up of single blades of silk-like grass. There is several inches of silicon and rubber pellets under carpet and used as infill on the field.”

“Both high schools have struggled with field maintenance issues, primarily from overuse,” says Lupo. “To provide a quality field surface for our student athletes will allow groups to use the fields more and provide a more consistent and safer playing surface. The turf fields can be used by multi-sports at each school.”

Hasling also points out that the artificial turf will make for easier maintenance. “It’s an extremely durable surface, and it drains in about 10 to 15 minutes. It would solve a lot of the problems we have now with the weather.”

She adds that the fact that the fields are in constant use during the spring and summer growing season makes it difficult to grow grass on the fields that are ripped apart when used during wet weather. The fields can also be set up with three stations for physical education classes, and the students will be able to use the fields more during the rainy season.

Hasling says the biggest hurdles to passage of the referendum may be voter apathy and people whose schools will not be seeing significant funding from the measure. “I admire the board not throwing in things for every school in an attempt to make the referendum pass. There was an original list of proposed repairs that was estimated to cost $35 million to 40 million and they pared it down. I’m hoping that with this referendum, the community will pull together for the good of the whole.”

‘Common Sense’ Group Formed

West Windsor Council Vice president Franc Gambatese, convinced that all too often the “vocal minority” prevails when it comes to controversial decisions in the township, has decided to start a group, Common Sense, that he hopes will represent the majority residents’ opinions.

“It’s a group that supports the common vision for the township and not what a small vocal group wants,” says Gambatese. “We’re trying to create an organization where the wider interests of the community are measured.”

Common Sense held its first meeting on December 10, organized by Gambatese, to share ideas. Some 30 residents attended including Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh. A second meeting to talk about whether there is enough support and enthusiasm to pursue the creation of the group is planned for sometime in January.

The seeds for Common Sense’s were planted on the wwptoday.com website’s message boards, where Gambatese is a frequent poster. Gambatese and several of the other posters on the site were disappointed by the West Windsor Council’s 4-1 decision on November 21 to reject a resolution that would have changed the name of the post office and 08550 ZIP code from Princeton Junction to West Windsor.

Gambatese, the lone vote in favor of the change, felt that this decision was a case of the vocal minority forcing a decision that was not in the best interest of the entire township. During the November 21 meeting, numerous residents from Princeton Junction passionately lobbied council against the change, while only two residents spoke in favor of the resolution.

“There’s little enclaves that come out (to town meetings) and deal only with only what they’re interested in, and they don’t represent the community as a whole,” says Gambatese. “The truth is, when you’re in favor of something, usually you don’t show up (to protest).”

“If a relatively small group of people can stop a widely desired outcome on a subject as minor as renaming the post office for the community it serves, what would happen if the same situation occurred when redevelopment, the transit village, or Route 571 improvements came up for Council action?,” says Gambatese in a posting on his website, francgambatese.com.

“West Windsor needs a counter-balance, an organization of residents who can examine and break down issues for residents to understand more easily and take the pulse of the general public,” says the councilman. “This group would be a non-partisan committee representing all of the community, not just those with special interests.”

Gambatese says he does not intend to be an officer of the group, but will “help give them game plans, and with developing a website. They’re also looking for an attorney to give them advice on municipal law.” He adds that once

He suggests the formation of subcommittees and workshops to look at residents’ opinions on major issues. “Online registration of members could in turn help measure our residents’ opinions through simple surveys and questionnaires. Consistent representation at Council meetings would add another side of an opinion for strap-hanging residents who leave for the cities at 6 a.m. and return at 8 p.m. and don’t even get to see a local newspaper until Saturday.”

Gambatese asks anyone seeking information on Common Sense to send an email to westwindsor@hotmail.com. “If you are a resident in West Windsor and you want to help build a new organization to represent the majority of our residents, many of whom are unable to attend public meetings, I urge you to contact Common Sense to help improve the opportunity for a more united West Windsor.”

Council to Consider Redevelopment

To many attending the November 21 meeting of West Windsor Council at which the issue of changing the 08550 ZIP code from Princeton Junction to West Windsor, one thing became apparent — the township sorely needs to build a sense of community.

As Council readies to discuss the issue of redevelopment of the area around the Princeton Junction train station at its meeting on Monday, December 19, Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh believes that moving forward with the redevelopment plan is the best way to create a sense of community in the township.

“That’s what I have been trying to push for. The West Windsor Arts Council and Farmers Market are part of this,” says the mayor. “I have also tried to be very supportive of the town’s sports leagues. I think it’s very important for our kids to feel good about West Windsor.

“I have also been going around outside the township and talking about West Windsor. For example, in September I was invited by the commissioner of the state Department of Transportation to talk about land use and planning in the township.”

The mayor says that the proposed redevelopment plan and transit village project in Princeton Junction are a major focus of his community-building agenda.

Council is expected to vote on December 19 whether to designate a 350-acre area surrounding the Princeton Junction train station as a redevelopment zone.

Council was originally scheduled to take up the issue at its meeting on November 21, but tabled the issue after the discussion about the ZIP code went on too long. The council has sent some indication that it favors moving ahead with the plan. During a special budget planning session on November 30, the council agreed to $175,"000 in the 2006 budget to pay for the costs for drafting the redevelopment plan.

If the redevelopment area is approved by council, it would be sent to the state Department of Community Affairs and the Office of Smart Growth for approval. If the report is okayed, the Planning Board would work on drafting a detailed redevelopment plan.

“What is really important here is to move forward with the transit village and redevelopment,” says Hsueh. “I think this (ZIP code issue) was a little setback for me. I thought I would have the support of council. But there are many other issues and opportunities to get there. Hopefully more people will be willing to speak up about creating a sense of identity and sense community.”

“It’s not going to be easy, because people have gotten used to the current situation,” he adds, pointing to the numerous developments in the township that are islands unto themselves. “My feeling is that in the 1980s (when most developments were approved) our government here seemed to foster an idea of isolation. Hopefully through redevelopment we can create a place that residents will look at as a place that belongs to all of West Windsor.”

WW Allows Chabad Menorah

In this age of political correctness, the holiday season not only brings tidings of comfort and joy — it also yields an annual nationwide debate about the legality of government allowing displays of religious items on public property.

This year, the debate settled in West Windsor when Rabbi Sholom Leverton of the West Windsor-based Chabad of the Windsors asked permission to put up a lighted menorah next to the township’s “holiday tree” at the Ron Rogers Arboretum on the Coward Tract at the corner of Route 571 and Clarksville Road.

Last month township attorney Michael Herbert issued a preliminary opinion not to allow Leverton to erect a menorah on the site this year, although it had been allowed in 2004. After researching the issue, Herbert reversed his initial opinion in a memo to township council dated December 1.

Attached to the memo is a nine-page opinion by Rachel Doobrajh, one of Herbert’s associates. The document cites several instances of case law, including United States Supreme Court decisions, in answering the question of whether a private organization can erect a menorah on public property.

Doobrajh concludes that religious expression does not violate the constitution as long as it is purely private, and “occurs in a traditional or designated public forum, publicly announced, and open to all on equal terms.”

She also states that “the township should play no role in erecting, maintaining, or recognizing the menorah, including providing any utilities, lighting, or other support to maintain the private nature of this undertaking.”

Herbert, concurring with Doobrajh’s position, says that the Chabad of the Windsors will put up and maintain the menorah without any involvement from the township, and has agreed to provide a sign identifying the Chabad as the sponsor.

Not all Jewish community leaders have the same opinion as Leverton. In a letter to Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh, four area rabbis urge the township not to allow the menorah.

“We were troubled and dismayed by the presence of a large Chanukah menorah on town property last December. We hope this will not be repeated during this year’s holiday season,” says the letter, signed by Rabbi Eric Wisnia of Congregation Beth Chaim of West Windsor, Rabbi Jay Kornsgold of Beth El Congregation in East Windsor, Rabbi Daniel Grossman of Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville, and Rabbi Adam Feldman of the Jewish Center of Princeton in Princeton Township.1

The rabbis state that it is not appropriate to display Jewish religious symbols on public property. “We have never asked for a Chanukah menorah to be placed on public property for display because we believe that the menorah is a deeply religious symbol, belonging in synagogues, Jewish homes, and Jewish communal institutions.”

“The menorah is not the equivalent of a Christmas tree; Chanukah is not the Jewish Christmas.”

Gary Loren, who is involved with Chabad of the Windsors, offers a differing point of view. It was Loren who initially brought up the issue before council earlier this year.

“I am very proud of the menorah and our right to have it displayed,” Loren said in a recent post on the wwptoday.com web site. “Of course Chanukah is a religious holiday. It is the happy festival of lights to celebrate the victory of the small group of Maccabees over the Syrians in 168 BCE when they were forced out of the Temple in Jerusalem for their religious beliefs. Chanukah is the story of religious conviction and how it may be necessary to fight to protect it. That is why we should be proud of our menorah and display it openly.”

“Once again, it appears that Jews are their own worst enemies,” he says. “I have not spoken to one non-Jewish person who has a problem with the menorah. Only Jew versus Jew. How many times has this happened in our long history?”

As for the question of the legality of the tree maintained by the township on the Coward Tract: Township officials have maintained that the tree — now in its ninth year — does not violate the separation of church and state because it is secular celebration of the holiday season, not a Christmas tree. This year, the tree was lighted during a free non-denominational ceremony that featured music and fireworks on December 4.

Cantu Tapped for Tax Relief Group

Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu spent the last year championing the cause of tax reform in the state as the president of the New Jersey League of Municipalities. It appears that someone important was listening — Governor-elect Jon Corzine.

Corzine on December 5 appointed Cantu as co-chair of a group on his transition team that will look at helping set the governor-elect’s policy on tax reform.

The group is charged with recommending a process for the implementation of Corzine’s tax relief plan, which includes a 40 percent increase in property tax rebates over four years. The group will also look at a citizens’ property tax convention, and a special session of the state legislature to address the reliance on property taxes to fund local government.

“I’ve been an advocate for property tax reform for a long time and more recently, last year as president of the League of Municipalities,” says Cantu. “It’s going to be a challenge, but I’m proud to be a part of something I believe in.”

Also named as co-chair of the group was Reginald Jackson, executive director of the Black Ministers’ Council of New Jersey, and Marilyn Askin, president of AARP New Jersey.

The group is one of six policy and management advisory groups appointed by Corzine to give recommendations on implementing the agenda he outlined during his campaign.

The other groups are Budget and Reengineering Government, Economic Development, Labor and Workforce Development, Child Welfare, and Public Education.

“Throughout the course of the transition these groups will map out short and long-term strategies for implementing the Governor-elect’s policy goals,” says a press release issued by the Office of the Governor Elect. “Additionally they will single out and examine critical issues that need to be addressed within the first six months of the administration.”

Members of the groups will provide factual information and assessments and will deliver recommendations to the Governor-elect prior to his inauguration. Corzine, who previously announced the Ethics Policy and Management Advisory Group, will announce the remaining policy groups shortly.

Carnegie Building Hearing Extended

Just before its December 14 meeting, the West Windsor Planning Board learned that that the seller and the buyer of a Carnegie Center property are at odds over how the site will be developed.

A three-story 84,"000 square-foot building, fronting Route 1, is planned for the eight-acre site that is now a playing field, located between the Bank of America building and the Kiddie Academy daycare center.

“The applicant indicated that there was a dispute about the location of an access route,” says Marvin Gardner, chairman of the planning board. “Boston Properties apparently disapproved of the layout as it was being presented.” The new owners want to move the road so it is out of line with the planned driveway for another future building, and this could cause a traffic safety problem.

Rather than approve the plan and have it vetoed by Boston Properties, the planning board extended the deadline for this application until January 11 so that the issue can be resolved.

The board also approved Bristol-Myers Squibb’s application to increase parking space at Nassau Park.

WW Valuations

To Be Mailed

With the township-wide property revaluation almost completed, West Windsor property owners will soon be receiving preliminary valuations in the mail.

The notification letter, according to a township release, will include the phone number to call to schedule a meeting to review the appraised value with Certified Valuations, the company that conducted the revaluation.

“Any property owner planning on attending an assessment review should bring as much information in regards to their property as they have available to them in order to make the meeting as beneficial as possible to all parties concerned,” says the release.

The new value, which will become effective in 2006, reflects the market value as of October 1, 2005.

The township also points out that applying the 2005 tax rate to the new assessed value will not be an accurate estimation of taxes for next year. “The reason for this is that values of almost all properties in West Windsor have increased substantially since the last revaluation, and the tax rate after the implementation of the revaluation will be reduced substantially for the 2006 tax year.”

The actual tax rate will not be determined until after school, municipal, and county budgets have been finalized next summer. Anyone with questions is asked to call the tax assessor’s office at 609-799-2400, ext. 247.