On Dec. 11, Robbinsville voters will have a chance to voice their opinion on a school referendum, which if approved, would put $18.9 million toward the renovation and expansion of Sharon Elementary School and Pond Road Middle School.

Among the proposed improvements to Sharon School are a two-story, 24-classroom addition, a full-court gymnasium and an expanded multipurpose room and kitchen. The referendum also includes plans for new windows, ceilings, floors and lighting in the school’s oldest classrooms.

Pond Road School would be in line for an expanded cafeteria and kitchen, as well as renovations to the media center to allow for the addition of new classrooms there.

District officials say the state of 54-year-old Sharon School and the swelling population of young children in the township make the proposals necessary. The addition to Sharon School would allow fourth graders to return to the facility, making Pond Road a school for Grades 5-8.

This is the second vote in three years related to the school district. Voters overwhelmingly rejected a $39.6-million referendum in Spring 2010 that could have allowed construction of a new intermediate school in Robbinsville, as well as improvements to Sharon School. Robbinsville School District superintendent Steve Mayer said his administration and the school board have heard the voters and have worked diligently to present a plan that is as lean and cost-conscious as possible. Robbinsville Mayor David Fried has stepped in recently to lend his support for the referendum.

Fried and Mayer sat down with Robbinsville Advance senior community editor Rob Anthes Nov. 13 for a 30-minute conversation about the referendum and how it affects the school district and the township as a whole.

What follows is a transcript of the gathering.

Robbinsville Advance: Why does the school district need this? What does it mean for the township to have this approved?

Steve Mayer: From a school perspective, we’re already overcrowded by about 20 percent in both of our elementary buildings. Sharon School and Pond Road School already have too many kids for how the building was designed. On top of that, at Sharon School, you’ve got portions of the building that were built in 1958 that haven’t been renovated or updated, essentially, since then.

So, it’s twofold. One, put the space in place for our K through 8 kids to have an appropriate learning environment. Two, to address our facilities’ needs that have been neglected for a long time. Really the third piece of that ties in with the future is to also, while we’re doing those two things, make sure that we’re looking ahead and building enough space to handle the kids we know are coming.

Dave Fried: The township perspective is really twofold. Number one, the township is trying to bring in Fortune 500 rateables, and we’ve done a pretty good job. There are a few we’ve already brought in. There are a few more we expect to announce in the near future. We are trying to attract Fortune 500 companies, and the things they’re looking for are a stable government, making sure property values are high. Schools clearly go into that calculation because when they look at where they want to move, they are looking at potentially bringing their people into our town. Good schools are very, very critical for these Fortune 500 companies.

Number two, from the town’s perspective, this new administration in the school district has really forged a good relationship in thinking about growth. Us trying to limit growth where we have development happening, so we can slow down development, so this new plan can actually work. It’s really been a two-pronged attack, with the town really trying to minimize the amount of residential development that could happen in the future by buying Town Center South; also by taking a very aggressive approach to Gordon-Simpson, to that project.

So, really, we’re trying to be creative on both sides by coming up with a new solution that saves taxpayers $20 million. The only way that’s going to work is if the town also works with them to limit the new housing that’s going to come on in the future, so we don’t wind up picking this solution and then needing a new school five years from now.

RA: Township voters rejected a referendum in 2010 that would have approved construction a new school in Robbinsville. What has changed in the last two years that should convince voters to go for this plan?

SM: I don’t know if anything has changed, but I think we heard the community loud and clear on Plan A, which was to have a new school. In these economic times and where we are in our history, having a standalone school was pretty soundly rejected. So, I think the board and our administrative teams have worked together over the past few years to brainstorm as many options as we possibly can.

As Dave said already, part of this plan ties to the township’s commitment to minimize the impact of additional development. We’re pretty close to the point where we see the last land available built on, so this set of projects is essentially a Plan B that accomplishes goals we have from an education perspective. It honors how the community expressed its voice several years ago in the referendum. And it represents, we hope, the last building project we need to do as a school district.

DF: We were very pleased the school district was able to come up with a different solution and eventually save taxpayers $20 million. I think there are a lot of people who want a lot of things. Recognizing this financial situation, they can’t afford everything they want. This is a really good compromise from the school district in being able to make sure we’re doing the right things for our kids and at the same time try to save as much money as possible for the taxpayers.

From the township’s perspective, what we’re concerned about is if we don’t do some of the infrastructure improvements in our K through 8, we’re going to start to have some real challenges in the schools. Those challenges could be significant. When you think about the homebuyer, while Robbinsville has an amazing reputation for schools across the board, if that reputation starts at the K through 8, and our facilities are not up to snuff, that really hurts our future homebuyers. It could drive down our property values.

When we think about who future homebuyers are, most people aren’t moving their kids when they’re in high school. Most people are moving their kids when they’re younger. If they don’t feel like our facilities for the younger kids are where they should be vis a vis other places, it could significantly hurt our home values, and it would most definitely limit the amount of potential homebuyers looking at Robbinsville.

RA: On a national level, some people are predicting we are heading for another recession. Will that affect this plan at all? Or is it the case that if we don’t spend money now, it will wind up costing more in the future?

SM: There is definitely a downside to inaction. The reality is if we have to put temporary space in — that will be our only option a couple years out, to build additional temporary space — we have no mechanism inside our general fund budget to do that. Our budget is hard-capped at 2 percent. Our CPI [Consumer Price Index, or the percentage cost of living increases each year] is about 1.9. So if you are hard-capped at 2 percent and your CPI is 1.9, you don’t have any dollars left over to even increase your staff, let alone put temporary space in. The five classrooms we have at Sharon, the standard cost for two years was $350,000 for each of those years. If I have to put temporary space like that in, I have to reduce programs somewhere.

We’re looking at people interested in Robbinsville because of the reputation of the schools. I don’t think we’re a community that’s going to value taking away options and opportunities for kids.

DF: The recession has been very, very hard on people, but it also has created opportunities. All of our construction bids have come in significantly below what we were originally looking at five years ago, when we weren’t in a recession and construction costs were going through the roof. Now, in the recession, you can see construction costs are down, and our dollars are going a lot further. Because of the recession, we’ve done some things that seven or eight years ago we just couldn’t have done.

SM: I think that’s an important point. Going out with these projects, we’ve got a budget. We think we can bring it in under budget because construction costs are favorable. Obviously, right now, those numbers are using estimates and not real bids. It takes a whole bunch of engineering before you can go out to bid, and that costs a lot of money. But all the soft costs, hard costs, engineering costs, everything’s in that [referendum].

RA: This isn’t part of the referendum, but what about the high school? Does it have enough space to handle the students it will see in the future?

SM: The high school facility, it is a little bit split as far as the capacity over there. The academic portions are built for about 900 students. We believe the high school will cap out at about 1,000, but there are spaces that we can put partitions in and use as classroom space. We believe we can handle the 1,000 that are coming. The core facilities that are over there, which is the theater, the gym space, the music space, are built for about 1,200.

There’s a little bit of a miscommunication. We’re a high school of just about 900 kids right now—881 is our enrollment. That school building is really being leveraged now. We have members of the community who still think we have 500 students over there. It’s a Group II high school. At this point, we have space for the high school kids that are coming, but any other kids, we’d have to put an addition on over there.

RA: So, the immediate need is only at Sharon and Pond Road?

SM: We think that the high school will take us into the future. That was some good thinking in the past.

RA: But some have suggested shuffling grades around so some middle school kids would go to the high school. You couldn’t do that?

SM: There’d be several issues. Number one, we’d have to put an addition on the high school. When I build an addition, why wouldn’t I want to build it on a school that’s academically and educationally appropriate? Two, I don’t know of any school that has successfully integrated 13-year olds with 18-year olds in a high school setting. I don’t know of any model out there with a strong high school program that has eighth graders or seventh graders moving into that school. If I have to build a wing for those students, why wouldn’t I build the wing on the school for our younger learners and keep it age appropriate?

RA: Robbinsville likes to compare itself to Princeton. Princeton’s per pupil spending is $6,000 more than Robbinsville’s, and the portion of Princeton’s budget drawn from taxes is similar to Robbinsville’s. Are you looking to increase per pupil spending at all? Would this referendum increase that figure?

SM: It’s a 5-cent increase. For the average homeowner, it’s about $192 per year. Debt service does get factored into your per pupil cost. If you take the debt service on this project and average it out, we have about 3,000 kids. Princeton’s numbers, you can check my math, but it’s about $18 million more dollars I’d have to spend to reach that. I couldn’t ask the public for anything ever again if you gave me $18 million more dollars to spend [every year in the budget].

RA: Right, but are Robbinsville schools achieving close to Princeton’s?

SM: We’re not quite getting Princeton results. We are close to Princeton results. Our target is getting that kind of result. But we’re doing it at the lowest cost possible. On the DOE’s website, there’s a taxpayer’s guide to spending. You look at Robbinsville on all of those indicators, we’re at the bottom of spending on every indicator that I’ve seen. I’m proud of that. I don’t want to increase per pupil spending like crazy. But the reality for us is, when it comes time to have the program and the facilities we need, we have to spend a few extra dollars.

DF: With spending, you want to look at spending versus result, which we have some of the lowest spending and some of the best results in Mercer County. You also want to look at spending versus property values. We’re probably one of the best in the county.

RA: As you both just said, the school district has tried to get the best results with the least amount of expenditure possible. Do you think that proves to taxpayers that you’re only putting this referendum up because it’s absolutely necessary? Do you think you’ve conveyed well enough that you’ve done your homework on the potential options?

SM: Yes. The answer is yes. We’ve had a lot of conversations about what the school district needs. At the end of the discussion, the school district needs these dollars to move forward in a productive way. We’re saying this is an important aspect to how we continue as a school district. I think you are hearing the mayor say they’re grateful we have a proposal that looks ahead yet saves the taxpayers some dollars. It’s a strong compromise.

My hope is that people find out information and become informed to understand there’s been a lot of effort on the school board’s side and the township’s side to put forward a program that works best.

DF: I think both sides, the school and the town, have shown an ability to listen. In politics today, everyone is afraid of being the dreaded flip-flopper. Sometimes you put forth your best idea and go out and see what happens. The public may not like that idea. To give you an example, I wanted to put a municipal building right next to Foxmoor. After listening to Foxmoor residents, we didn’t think it was a great idea. You have to be able to retrench, rethink your position and come up with something new. It just so happens we found a great compromise with Roma Bank, and we’re going to have a new building, a building that will spur new rateables and generate enough tax revenue to almost pay for the new municipal building.

The school district did something similar. They heard voters. For them to be able to come back with a retolled plan that saved $20 million is a pretty significant move. It showed a lot of creativity.

RA: Was there a time when the school district considered other alternatives?

SM: We considered every other alternative. We came up with different models. Our [architectural firm] used 20 architects in their office to do as many iterations of ideas of additions here, new buildings there as they could come up with. The board really wrestled through them. It required a high degree of creativity.

RA: You currently have two Kindergarten classes at Windsor School.

SM: We have three at Windsor School.

RA: This referendum would move them to Sharon School. What would happen to Windsor School?

SM: We would like to bring the Kindergarteners from Windsor to the Sharon Road property. We’re in the middle of trying to get appraisals for the Windsor property. If we find out there’s some value in a sale of that property, we would use those dollars for debt service relief.

RA: So, what exactly would happen if this referendum failed?

SM: Our class sizes have gone up about 15 percent in the last three or four years, primarily because we don’t have the resources to put temporary space in or additional teachers. We’re making a lot of trade offs with this capped budget.

The alternative is that class sizes continue to go the wrong direction until we can no longer sustain that, and then we’d have to add temporary space. The only way to do that would be to cut programs. That, to me, is doing harm to the township.

RA: Would this really affect township business?

DF: Listen, when you take a look at the types of rateables we’re bringing in—Mercedes, McKesson, potentially the A-word [Amazon]—we’re not bringing in small businesses. We’re bringing in large, Fortune 500 businesses. These companies are making sure they can do well in our community. They will bring some of their people here, and their people will live in the surrounding communities. Each one of these buildings will bring an additional $1 million into town. It’s extremely significant to keep our reputation up.

It’s also extremely important to think about your property value. I hear sometimes from parents with kids in high school. When the kids graduate, they’re going to leave town. They’re not really worried about this referendum. But they’re the people who should be the most worried.

When you think about when they leave, they’re going to sell their house. The most likely buyer for that house isn’t a parent with a high school aged kid. Those parents are set. They don’t usually move. It’s going to be a parent of a young kid. And that parent is not going to be looking at our high school facility. They’re going to be looking at our younger grade facilities. If our younger grade facilities aren’t where they should be, their home values are going to suffer.

I look at what my largest investments are. One of my largest investments is my home. And to have my house go down just 10 percent, that’s $50,000. To trade $200 per year for the potential loss of $50,000 of my property value, there’s just no way I could consider risking that. For me as a property owner, I couldn’t afford that. And to think that property values couldn’t go down 10 percent if this referendum fails is a mistake.

RA: You usually find that only people who feel strongly come out for school elections. Voter turnout is small. Why is it important for the person who is really busy and usually doesn’t vote to come out for this referendum? What about people who don’t have kids? Why is it important for them?

SM: This is a public question. It is a question for everyone. There are 8,000 registered voters. I think about 6,200 of them came out for the presidential election this year. We typically get about 3,000 in our elections.

It’s a question for the residents. Is this a value you have as a community member? Our hope would be we get an excellent turnout, and that the entire community stands up and lets their voice be known.

I found it interesting in the general election our community members supported the first question, 3,100 to 2,100. They voted to support public higher education. I was encouraged by that. If we’re willing to allocate tax dollars for higher ed, my hope would be the same community members would support K through 12 education.

DF: I think people should vote even if they don’t have kids in the system. They should still come out to protect their property values. I don’t think there’s a more important question we’re going to have this year in our town. This is going to be a statement about where we’re going as a community. I don’t want to pay more taxes as much as the next person does. But this is one of those cases where it’s the right thing to do.

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Rob Anthes
Rob Anthes is managing editor at Community News Service, serving as the editor of the Hamilton Post and Robbinsville Advance. Rob's writing has been honored by the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists, the Keystone Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Association of Free Community Papers, most recently in 2019. He is a 2019 fellow at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting. A Hamilton native, Rob is a graduate of Steinert High School and Syracuse University.