The origins of the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District go back to the early 1950s, when residential development began to increase in Princeton Township. At that time Princeton High School was one of only a few high schools in suburban Mercer and neighboring counties, and many school districts near Princeton sent their 9th through 12th graders to that school on a sending-receiving basis. As Princeton Township grew, the number of high schoolers from Princeton alone grew to the point that Princeton school officials became concerned that they might not have sufficient capacity at the high school for even their own students, let alone those from out of town.
As a result, in the early 1960s Princeton began warning the sending districts that they would have to make alternative arrangements for their high school students in the coming years. West Windsor was among several sending districts that were given until 1974 to remove all of their students from Princeton High School. Other affected districts included Cranbury, Franklin, Plainsboro, Lawrence, Montgomery, and South Brunswick, none of which had high schools of their own.
Taking this warning to heart, the West Windsor school board in 1968 formed a citizens’ committee to consider what would be needed for West Windsor to establish its own high school. As a member of that school board who had children both at Princeton High School and in the West Windsor elementary schools, I decided to take an active part in that effort. It did not take long to realize that the per-pupil cost of building a new high school by ourselves would be extremely high. Some rough estimates for the cost of a new high school were over $10 million, and numbers like that were frightening to board members. (The budget for an entire year for the West Windsor schools, including the cost of sending our 9th through 12th graders to Princeton, had just reached $1 million, which seemed like a lot in 1968.)
The obvious alternative was to share the cost by forming a regional district with one or more of the other affected Princeton sending districts. This would improve the efficiency of some school operations and programs. Because they were adjacent to each other, the districts of Plainsboro and Cranbury were given the most serious consideration as potential partners with West Windsor. Cranbury decided to make other plans, and West Windsor and Plainsboro were left to form the district we have today.
But before the official decision could be made to present the new district to the voters for approval, plans had to be drawn up for a high school. Forming the regional district was only a first step. There also had to be a high school that would be ready for students by the fall of 1973, when we would have to start leaving Princeton. Thus was formed the “Committee of 50.” Under the leadership of Bill Stuart, a Princeton University administrator who lived in West Windsor, a group of West Windsor and Plainsboro residents with diverse backgrounds in education was put together to formulate a plan for the school curriculum and the facilities and staff that would be needed to make it work.
College and high school teachers, school administrators, building experts, architects, and anyone else who might be able to make a useful contribution made up that impressive committee. For a while, it seemed that a PhD in almost any subject qualified one for membership. But it is remarkable that so large a group was inspired to see its goal so clearly and to stay focused without the contrariness that so often infects such public efforts. There was little or no wandering from the course, and the plan was approved by the State Department of Education.
On April 22, 1969, voters in both townships approved a referendum calling for the formation of the regional district. A few weeks later, the new district’s board of education was appointed by the county education commissioners. They chose the members from the two sitting boards that had been elected in 1968. Based on population, seven members were from West Windsor of Mercer County and two from Plainsboro of Middlesex County. The new district began operation officially on July 1, 1969.
Later that year, the Committee of 50 presented its plan to the board and the public at large. It called for the construction of a high school that would be expandable for up to 1,750 students in grades 7 through 12. The next step was to hire an architectural firm to design the building and oversee its construction. It also meant that the district needed to have a new superintendent, preferably one with experience in overseeing the construction of a high school. These steps were taken over the next few months, and the new school plan was presented to the voters for approval on June 30, 1970. The $6.99 million plan was approved overwhelmingly, even including the swimming pool enclosed in an inflated “bubble.”
Choosing the architectural firm to design the building proved to be an interesting experience. At the time “open space” designs were considered to be the coming thing in schools, and we went along to the extent of hearing about what that meant. A locally known proponent of such designs was Shaver Partnership, a firm that had designed the highly praised Monmouth County Community College not long before.
We heard their pitch, reviewed their ideas, and chose them to design our school. However, since they were from Indiana, they had the Midwestern approach to athletic facilities — primarily for football — which meant that the football stadium was a major consideration in any new school. Yes, even in high school. They wanted to know what seating capacity we wanted and whether or not we wanted locker rooms under the stands. They started talking about a concrete stadium in the $2 million range. We straightened them out in a hurry: “No football stadium! When we need them and can afford it, we’ll put up portable bleachers.” After that sidelight, we got them back on track. Of course, the “open space” ideas that were incorporated in the design didn’t all work that well at first, but those problems were corrected as time went on. Incidentally, we played football games for the first few seasons at Mercer County Park.
While it was not a problem just for the new West Windsor-Plainsboro school district alone, at the same time all this was going on, the State of New Jersey mandated that local school boards had to start formally negotiating salary and benefit contract packages with teachers and other local employee associations. Up until that time salaries and benefits had been determined by local school boards unilaterally. This new process created a whole new set of problems that, when added to those of organizing a new school district and building a new high school, made that a busy and exciting time indeed.
What is now West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South opened for grades 7 through 10 in the fall of 1973 under the leadership of principal Ronald G. Watson. It was built on what had once been the farm of George Coward. Some of the trees that originally surrounded his old farmhouse still grow at the corner of Clarksville and Hightstown roads. The house itself was in very poor condition and had to be torn down. Of course, when the school opened grades 11 and 12 still attended Princeton High School. Two years later, the school had its first commencement when the Class of 1976 graduated with ceremonies on the front lawn. The last West Windsor and Plainsboro students at Princeton had graduated the year before.
In the 37 years since that first graduation, many changes have taken place in the school district, including the building of additional elementary and middle schools and another high school. Few residents then would have imagined what we have today in our district of nearly 10,000 students.
It is important to recognize that in 1969 when the regional district started, the population of West Windsor was barely 6,000 people. Today it is nearly 30,000. Plainsboro has grown by an even larger percentage. In 1969 its population was less than 2,000. Today it is more than 23,000. Planners in the early years of the school district had absolutely no way of predicting such growth in communities that were composed almost entirely of farmland. Who knew what farm of what size would be sold next to a housing developer? Obviously, there was the potential for tremendous growth, but at what rate there was no way to predict.
Though the quality of the schools in a community is always a drawing card for many new residents, that is only one of several factors. Taxes, accessibility to transportation, and the degree of commercial development and jobs are a few others. Since 1980, at least two major predictive studies have been done to help forecast school facility needs. That should always be an important job for every school board. For those who feel the present district is not ideal, look around. Why did you move here? School quality was probably influential. But recognize that an ever-increasing population is itself a major factor that makes the high quality ever more difficult to sustain.