This article was originally published in the July 2018 Princeton Echo.
The Board of Education is expected to vote on Tuesday, July 17, to place a $129.6 million bond referendum before the voters on October 2. How will you vote? Even though the choice is yes or no, you could be in one of four camps:
1.) You want your hometown schools to be the best that they can be, not only for your children but for all children. According to the school system’s projections, the owner of a home of average value in the town ($837,000) would face tax hikes from $220 to $690 per year in the first four years after the bonds are issued, but then the impact dwindles down to very little. The average annual increase over the 30-year period is less than $54.
About $56.5 million would be spent to renovate and expand Princeton High School, increasing its capacity to 2,000 students (compared to its current over-enrollment of 1,612); $40 million to build a new upper elementary school at the site of the old Valley Road School, which will combine grades 5 and 6 in a single building, creating more room for the four elementary schools and John Witherspoon Middle School, which would just house grades 7 and 8; $15 million to renovate the four current elementary schools and the middle school; $12.5 million for administration facilities and $5 million for fields/turf/athletics. It will relieve overcrowding at both the high school, middle school, and several of the elementary schools. It would also harden the entry door security systems at all schools. A comprehensive review of the plans, as well as a list of 24 frequently asked questions and answers, are posted at princetonk12.org.
A letter received by the Echo just before this issue went to press cited the need for many of the improvements listed above. It supported the referendum and was signed by 20 residents.
2.) You also want your hometown schools to be the best that they can be, but you worry that the spending plan has not been carefully designed. Your lack of confidence is based in part on the fact that this referendum was developed over a six-month period, and that the Board of Education has had a recent history of troubled construction projects. You will vote no on October 2, but you would welcome the Board of Education to reconsider its referendum, invite more public input, and put another proposal to a public vote sometime in the future.
3.) You think the schools are good enough as they are, and the looming prospect of a tax increase — coming at the very time that the federal tax deduction for property taxes has been severely limited — threatens your sense of financial security. You also know that the increases created by the referendum will be compounded by the inexorable increases in operating costs. You wonder how much longer you will be able to afford to live in town. You will vote no.
4 — a relatively new category.) You support the schools but you are also concerned about the impact it will have on property taxes — not just yours but also your neighbors’ taxes. If the real price of the best and brightest school system is the continued erosion of middle class residents in our increasingly affluent community, then maybe it’s too high a price to pay.
The School Board has been busy in recent weeks. In late May the board announced it would reverse its plan to purchase the former SAVE animal rescue space at 1000 Herrontown Road for $1.7 million and would instead purchase two three-story office buildings at 100 and 101 Thanet Circle for $6.5 million. The board’s tentative plan is to use the first two floors in one building for staff space, and rent the top floor out to a commercial office user. The second building would be demolished and the 15-acre site could eventually be a location for a possible new school.
Last month the board renewed for another 10 years the district’s agreement by which the town of Cranbury sends its high school students to Princeton, despite a concerted effort by some residents to either postpone the agreement or to limit its term to a shorter length. A group of 80 or so showed up on a Saturday morning to voice their concerns at a “community conversation” at the Princeton Public Library. Three days later the vote was held. Although it passed handily, it failed to gain support from three board members — one hoping for a shorter term and two wanting more time to study the details of the contract.
Less than a week later the board held a “town hall” to discuss the referendum. A similar sized crowd, including some of the same people who spoke out against the Cranbury agreement, turned out. Daniel Dart, a parent with a background in finance and an organizer of the Coalition for Academic Excellence and Fiscally Responsible Princeton Public Schools, distributed a seven-point statement.
Among the critics’ contentions: The proposed $130 million referendum is the largest in Princeton’s history, and three to six times larger — on a per pupil basis — than other school referendums in central and suburban New Jersey. Princeton’s referendum, Dart calculates, is more than $31,000 per student ($129 million divided by 4,089 students), while a recent West Windsor-Plainsboro referendum was only $11,616 per student.
According to Dart, “the part-time, all-volunteer Board of Education is attempting to expand and/or renovate all six schools; tear down the 25 Valley Road building, and build a new 5/6 school; acquire a 15-acre site with office buildings on Thanet Circle; and relocate administrative offices, almost simultaneously; a great risk to Princeton students and taxpayers, if not executed perfectly.” He points out that in previous major expansion projects the Board of Education filed a lawsuit against its own architect in 2011 and was sued by its contractor in 2008.
The $129 million referendum “is only at the mid-point of estimated constructions costs,” Dart contends. He adds that the board has not estimated the tax impact from hiring new teachers, staff, or the higher operating costs of the new or renovated buildings.
The board’s “average, over the life of the bond” property tax estimates for the referendum assume that no new school referendum bonds are issued over the 30-year life of these bonds. These property tax estimates are for the capital budget only; they do not include taxes caused by increases in the operating budget.
Supporters and opponents of the referendum have plenty of points of contention. If the high school renovation and addition seem expensive, then it may be because it’s being done with minimal expansion of the high school footprint — it’s already difficult for students to move from one classroom to another on the opposite side of the building in the allotted time between classes. “Inward expansion,” the website explains, means taking three unused courtyards, covering them with skylights and creating usable learning space. In all there would be 22 additional large classrooms, 25 small group areas throughout the building, and 54,000 square feet of new space.
Critics, on the other hand, look at the $6.75 million earmarked for a fitness center at the high school, and note that there are at least two fitness centers open to the public within walking distance from the high school.
The grade 5-6 school, Dart points out, is projected to cost $40 million or more than $470 per square foot. “A charter school could build this facility for half this price,” Dart contends, “and potentially raise all the necessary funds through an endowment campaign.”
Information on the district’s website, however, suggests that the 5-6 school will be designed as a “community school,” with a focus “on helping children and families thrive intellectually, physically, and emotionally.” The new building would be “shared with community partners in support of family engagement, student health and academic enrichment.” It would “bookend the community” between Valley Road and the Public Library at the other end of Witherspoon Street. Critics wonder if the “community school” will not simply duplicate many social services already provided by the town.
Ralph Perry, a retired financial engineer who earlier proposed that the school board consider placing the new 5/6 school near the existing middle school and sell the Valley Road site to a private developer (The Echo, June, 2018), has a critical view of the 30-year length of the proposed bond. “Generally bonds are issued with maturities in line with the life of the project for which the money is being used for,” Perry says.
“Normally it is 10 to 20 years — 30 years is unusual. It can be done for a brand new building but should not be done for furniture and fixtures, refurbishing, computers, renovations, etc.”
Resident Sheila Siderman said that the Board of Education cites a 2010 Wharton study showing passage of school referendums have led to a 6 percent increase in home values. “What we are not being told is that it was a California-based study, where the tech industry has driven up property values dramatically,” she said.
The opponents also believe that the facilities plan was developed in a short time and with limited community involvement, and is being “rushed” for state approval for an “off election cycle” voting date, likely to have low voter turnout.
Joel Schwartz, an architect and critic of the decision-making process for the Cranbury agreement, points out that a resident needing a zoning variance for a backyard shed would have to go through a rigorous notification process. The same is true of a municipality seeking to pass an ordinance. “Compared with the highly public process by which land use decisions,” Schwartz says, “school boards are permitted, by the structure of New Jersey law, to conduct their business in the dark.”
“Does this board and does our community want to raise the bar to be higher and more public and more inclusive?”