This article was originally published in the August 2018 Princeton Echo.
November will be a busier time than expected for the Board of Education. The proposed $130 million school bond referendum, originally planned for a special election in October, will be divided into two questions, one for $83 million and the other for $47 million, and will be put before voters in November — see details below.
And at least four candidates will vie for three open school board seats in the November election. Incumbents Dafna Kendal and Betsy Baglio have announced they will seek re-election to three-year terms. Mary Clurman and Daniel Dart, two residents who have voiced concern over the board’s handling of the $130 million bond referendum, have also announced their candidacies. The other expiring term belongs to board president Patrick Sullivan, who earlier announced that he would not seek re-election.
The deadline to file nominating petitions for the school board was July 30, after this issue of the Echo went to press.
Clurman, who has lived in Princeton for the past 10 years, is a retired Montessori teacher. A member of the executive board of the Princeton Community Democratic Organization, she has been active in recent months with a group seeking clarification of the referendum request and — in some cases — questioning the board’s ability to manage the projects that would be initiated if it were passed. “I am running in order to open Princeton’s schools to broad, and democratic, community participation,” she said. “Transparent action by the board would demonstrate the value of critical thinking and democratic participation in vital decisions. It is not enough to say, ‘Here is the plan, take it or leave it’.”
Dart has also been a critic of the way in which the referendum has been presented. A retired executive in the asset management industry, most recently as a chief operating officer at Merrill Lynch Investment Managers, prior to the sale of the company to BlackRock, Dart has served on the boards of the Corner House Foundation and the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association. Dart and his wife have two children. The older daughter is a 2017 graduate of Princeton High School and just completed her first year at Boston College. The younger daughter is entering fifth grade at Johnson Park.
The decision to postpone the referendum to November and break it into two parts followed several lengthy town meetings and regular board of education sessions at which many opinions were heard both for and against the referendum. The vote to break the question into two parts came after 11 p.m., more than three hours after the meeting began.
The first question before the voters seeks $83 million for school improvements and the construction of a new school for grades five and six on the site of the former Valley Road School. That school would take fifth grade classes from the existing elementary schools, easing crowding at those buildings. It would also take the sixth grade students from John Witherspoon School, giving the middle school more room. The money would also be used to purchase two office buildings at 100 Thanet Circle and convert one into administrative offices and to make some improvements and security upgrades at the other schools.
The second question, seeking $47 million for improvements, especially added classrooms and other improvements at the high school, cannot be approved unless the first question is approved as well.
One of the points of confusion about the referendum was how much it would cost. A referendum presentation made at a town hall meeting in July referred to a brochure outlining the school district’s needs and the improvements that could be made if the referendum were approved. On page 53 a section called “Tax Impact” outlined the “estimated average annual impact” on a home of average value in town, $837,034.
According to the chart the impact in the first year would be $295; in year two it would be $294; year three, $692; and year four, $220. The chart also presented the annual impact over the entire 30-year period the bond: $53.49 per year. Those numbers were quoted in the media, including the July issue of the Echo. To some readers the figures seemed puzzling. If the average were $53.49 a year over 30 years that would mean a total impact of around $1,600 over the length of the bonds. How could any reasonable person argue with that? But according to that same chart the payments in the first four years would be about $1,500 — meaning just a little more than $100 to be paid over the next 26 years. Seems too good to be true.
Another chart on the next page began to shed light on the analysis. The phrase “tax impact” apparently referred to the increase in “debt service” caused by the new bonds. It would be greater in the first four years or so because in that period other 10 and 20-year bonds, issued from prior capital spending programs, were being paid off. So the average “tax impact” of $53.49 per year is actually the projected increase in debt service compared to what the average homeowner is already paying, continued for 30 years.
Another chart, titled “Estimated Additional Annual Tax Impact,” found in the materials for the April 17, 2018, Board of Education meeting posted on the district website, shows that the average annual tax impact from the new debt service would be about $641 per year on the house of average value. Bottom line is still the same. Do voters want to spend this much money for the improvements sought by the school board? Or, as one critic put it, would they be willing to pay the money if they were assured it would be managed and spent in an effective way?
In the November election the school board candidates, as well as the voters, will have no shortage of issues to address.