These letters were originally published in the May 2018 Princeton Echo.
I was asked for help to understand the finances of the Princeton Public Schools (PPS) by an elected Princeton official. I was very disturbed by what I found.
Princeton Public Schools officials are planning an October 2 voter referendum to raise property taxes to support a $137 million facilities plan. The facilities plan includes $62 million to renovate and expand Princeton High School, $40 million to build a new 5/6 grade school, $15 million to renovate the five community schools, $14 million for administration facilities, and $5 million for fields/turf/ athletics. The rationale for this facilities plan is to accommodate the anticipated growth in new students. I believe the proposed facilities plan, as well as the timing of the plan, are ill conceived for the following reasons:
1) PPS officials have neither consulted nor coordinated with the Princeton Charter School, which they view as the enemy. PPS officials have filed a lawsuit over the Princeton Charter School’s plan to increase enrollment. Princeton Charter School offers an excellent education at a lower cost. I don’t believe that Princeton can afford to sustain academic excellence with duplicate school systems.
2) Princeton High School can accommodate the growth of 265 new students without expansion, simply by not renewing the contract with the Township of Cranbury to educate its high school students. Why should we educate their students when we need the space for our own students? The proposed facilities plan includes $62 million to renovate and expand Princeton High School.
3) The $40 million cost of the new 85,000-square-foot building for grade 5/6 school is excessive at $470 per square foot. A charter school could build this facility for half this price and potentially raise all the necessary funds through an endowment campaign.
4) The facilities plan includes $14 million for administrative facilities that do not contribute to learning or the overall educational experience.
5) The timing of the facilities plan is wrong as Princeton has issued bonds that are maturing in years 2021 and 2022, which would allow for a more fiscally responsible facilities plan, without the need to raise taxes through a taxpayer referendum.
6) Spending $14 million on administrative offices is a waste of taxpayer money.
7) The interest on $137 million of new bonds at 4.25 percent requires $5.822 million in interest payments per year. The interest cost alone would fund 58 new teachers at $100,000 a year per teacher, including benefits. More teachers means smaller class sizes and better education.
8) PPS represent 49 percent of the overall Princeton municipal budget. The $137 million facilities plan does nothing to address the cost pressures and needs of the rest of the municipal budget. Will Princeton taxpayers be subject to another referendum to raise taxes to cover the other parts of the municipal budget?
9) New Jersey has one of the three highest state and local tax burdens in the country. The proposed PPS referendum to raise taxes would increase that tax burden, lower property values, and drive out more high net worth residents. Many of these high net worth residents pay for schools through their tax dollars but send their children to private schools.
10) Princeton has other fiscally responsible and sustainable options available to maintain academic excellence and meet its needs for growth with new or renovated facilities.
I would like to organize a committee to develop an alternative plan to promote academic excellence and fiscally responsible Princeton schools.
— Daniel J. Dart, Wendover Drive
Ever mindful of the comment that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics, I have come across the following information.
The Cranbury students make up about 17 percent of Princeton High School’s population. The high school facilities would not now and would not for at least 10 years be above capacity if the Cranbury students were not included in the high school population. Without the Cranbury students, there would be no need for an addition to the high school.
Furthermore, the tuition rate per Cranbury student is about $17,200. According to the New Jersey Department of Education’s Guide to Education Spending, the budgeted cost per pupil in the Princeton Public Schools for 2016-’17 was $19,964.
In addition, according to U.S. News, Princeton High School ranks sixth among 424 high schools in New Jersey.
I have seen little if any of the above reviewed in presentations for the $137 million bond referendum. And there is little mention of how maintenance for expenses would significantly increase if the referendum covering the addition and reconfiguring of the high school is passed.
It would be helpful to all voters if the above were discussed in detail before we are asked to approve the bond.
— Patricia A. Taylor, Richard Court
The high school sending-receiving agreement with Cranbury is expiring in 2020. This is a once-in-a-decade opportunity for the Princeton Public Schools and the town’s residents to reexamine the costs and benefits of this agreement and whether the reasons to enter into this agreement almost 10 years ago are still valid today and for the next decade.
Whether to renew the Cranbury agreement will have a material impact on the student headcount in Princeton High School in a time when our school facility is capacity-constrained. More importantly, this decision will directly affect the need and the timing of the proposed facilities referendum, which in turn will have a significant impact on the township finances.
Rather than brushing aside questions about the Cranbury agreement, the school board has the obligation to provide Princeton residents a detailed explanation as to whether renewing the Cranbury agreement is in our best interest. Unfortunately the information provided so far by the school district to justify renewing this agreement has been woefully inadequate and often misleading. For example:
1. The Board of Education members and the Cranbury representative said at the April 10 board meeting that there is no legal option to terminate this agreement. However, NJ Rev Stat 18A:38-21 clearly states that the board may apply to the New Jersey Department of Education for consent to terminate the agreement on the ground that the receiving district is “no longer able to provide facilities for the pupils of the other district.”
2. The Board of Education and the superintendent told us that terminating the Cranbury agreement will lead to an immediate loss of $4.9 million in revenue for the district. That is not true. NJ Rev Stat 18A:38-21.1 stipulates that the send-receive relationship shall be continued for the students from the sending district who are already enrolled. This means that the loss of revenue to the district will be phased in over four years, which should provide both Princeton and Cranbury school districts the time to make operational and financial adjustments.
3. The superintendent also said that the lost revenue from Cranbury would be too big a budget deficit to fill and will force the district to breach the 2 percent cap on property tax increases. Yet taking on over $100 million of debt and the associated operating costs of new school facilities seems to be a sure way to exceed that 2 percent cap. The township residents are entitled to all the necessary information to help them to decide which bill to foot.
As substantial changes in tax laws are occurring at both the federal and state levels, township residents, more than any time, have the right to demand from our elected officials the prudence and transparency that are required for decisions that could affect the township’s financial health for the next decade and beyond.
Please join me in urging our school district officials to postpone voting on the send-receive agreement with Cranbury and present us detailed information and analysis so that our community can make an informed decision.
Sign the petition at Change.org calling on the Board of Education to postpone voting on the send-receive agreement with Cranbury.
— Jian Chen, Stone Cliff Drive
In 2016 I wrote a headline, “Princeton School Board Election — Huge Tax Increases Pre-ordained.” As the town now enters 2018, it is evident that predictions on cost growth will be exceeded and the problem will become a tax and fiscal crisis for our town. How so?
First and foremost, per-student costs are totally out of control and far exceed those of other high performing districts, even those in Mercer County — costs up to 38 percent more on a $100 million budget. This grievously impacts the town’s ability to fund other priority needs. Plus, the percentage of real estate taxes allocated to schools keeps growing.
Second, current demographic projections and related plans to accommodate predicted growth will mandate a major bond issue to fund school construction for hundreds of additional students in several schools. Teachers and administrative personnel required will increase concurrently.
Third, actions that might eliminate or reduce both forecasted increases in enrollment and the scope of capital investments are not being fully explored and certainly not being aggressively pursued. Cranbury High School sending district, non-resident, and various ineligible students comprise a list of hundreds Princeton schools are not required to admit.
Fourth and most important, the demographic data and trends used to justify the huge expenditures being planned are flawed. They ignore or place no credence on possible impact of macro-scale programs that are being initiated or expanded at the federal level by the new administration’s Secretary of Education, including school choice, vouchers, charter schools, etc.
These programs may reduce future enrollment significantly as there are large numbers of empty seats in area private schools of diverse character plus under enrollment and closure of many financially troubled schools, especially those with religious affiliation. Vouchers and school choice options alone could significantly increase enrollments and financial viability of many schools and enable reopening of several in our area.
Personally, I have spent more than 30 years, most often as a pro-bono volunteer, involved in and strongly supporting both public and private education at all levels. In Princeton I have always supported ensuring continuity of their treasured traditions of excellence. I am reminded of my first election campaign for school board in 1992 and trying to “foster a climate for constructive change.” I recall very welcome and detailed, fact-based coverage of all candidates in our local media including even citing my seven priorities listed below and later reporting on a surprising victory. The seven priorities were:
• Restore Board’s proper role: governance
• Get educational priorities straight
• Stop Board’s preoccupation with raising revenues (taxes)
• Start reducing and controlling costs,
• Stop explosive growth in salaries and benefits
• Downsize administration
• Focus on performance and accountability.
— John Clearwater, Governors Lane