Newspaper ad supporting bond referendum lacks transparency

To the Editor:

I wonder who paid for the ad in last week’s Town Topics supporting the school bond referendum?

State law requires a group of two or more individuals acting jointly to promote the passage of a public question, and expecting to raise or expend at least $2,800 for the campaign, to appoint a campaign treasurer, establish a bank account and file a report within 10 days with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. ELEC’s website doesn’t show any political committee in support of the Princeton Public School’s bond issue, and the ad reads only “Paid Advertisement.” Maybe each signatory was moved by love of open classrooms to drop by Town Topics’ office and independently pay for an ad?

The more likely instigator is the Princeton Public Schools, or one of the entities that it controls. Such covert advocacy would be consistent with a school board that’s trying to ram through an extension of the sending agreement with rapidly growing Cranbury in order to bake in forecasts of Princeton High School overcrowding. But shouldn’t such Princeton Public Schools advocacy be disclosed to Princeton voters? And shouldn’t Princeton’s media, even if they are being paid to run ads, be reporting on this potential violation of the public trust and potential violation of state law?

Pat O’Connell

24 comments
  • So many moving parts and such a rush from PPS to go for it. I am voting “NO”.

  • For those who are thinking that cutting Cranbury off so suddenly isn’t fair either, Slide 13 shows that PHS could give lots of advance notice without increasing enrollment. PHS could admit Cranbury kids for another three years before capacity exceeds the current 2017 enrollment in the 2021-2022 school year. The new construction, if the bond is passed and everything goes according to plan, will come on line in 2022, coincidentally.

    I would also like to note that the FULL details of the PHS renovation weren’t available online to the public as a .pdf until April 17, less than five months before the official vote. Interestingly, the updated blueprints eliminate several new classrooms in the media wing/old band room area yet preserve the open-concept courtyard experiment.

    Moving on to the new 5/6 school: Did anyone notice the fireplace, the greenhouse, the optional llama farm or the glass railings on second-story balconies? How about the lack of bathrooms (there needs to be 1 for every 50 students, accessible from a hallway and not inside another classroom, by law), or all the furniture cluttering the halls? This is a school for 10- and 11-year-olds! It really makes me question board priorities.

    The current 5/6 plan also includes demolishing the administrative part of the Valley Road building, which is already a school and can be turned into six-to-eight classrooms with only a few modifications because of actions taken by previous boards. It’s not perfect, but it’s already there, which should count for something.

    On top of that, wouldn’t adding a third story on an interior part of the new 5/6 school be a cheaper way to house the administration than paving over the front of JW for a new wing and 60-car parking lot? The new JW wing will eliminate the current entry path, trees and green space. Did no one notice that either?

    So many moving parts to this bond issue…

  • The Cranbury PowerPoint is misleading. Slide 13 doesn’t include PHS enrollment for 2017, which is 1,612. If it had, it would be obvious that not admitting any more Cranbury students would maintain the current enrollment until 2024 or 2025, which happens to be beyond the five-year projection required by NJ law for school construction bonds. Of course it is more than the “capacity” of 1,423 students, but PHS hasn’t been that “empty” since at least 2012, according to Slide 34 of the January enrollment PowerPoint. Princeton residents are right to ask the board why taxpayers need to approve a $100 million-plus construction project at PHS to accommodate 200 or so students who don’t live here. Even Cranbury might agree that it isn’t fair. Cranbury has had a good run here for decades while keeping its own taxes low, but maybe now it needs to stand on its own. It could issue its own bond and start up its own high school, or seek to send its students to one of the adjoining towns that has room to spare. Yes, canceling the contract is difficult. Yes, it has never been done before. But since when does the board of the Princeton Public Schools not rise to an occasion to lead the way? By the way, board members are responsible for overseeing the education of the students, but ALSO represent the taxpayers. As for it being impossible to replace the revenue brought by Cranbury, that is just not true. The board could resume the April annual budget vote, and ask the town to approve a $5 million increase (about 4-5%) in the annual tax levy to replace revenue lost by canceling the Cranbury relationship. I think Princeton voters are capable of understanding the tradeoff: A much smaller bond for PHS improvements to add needed classes (maybe another 6-10 classrooms to fit excess students in the ground floor spaces and media wing) and to widen hallway intersections with corner carve-outs, plus a vote to increase the annual budget by $5 million. THIS is the question that Princeton taxpayers want answered: Will it cost less in the long run to cancel the Cranbury contract, really shrink the PHS construction plan (nothing fancy — it’s still a public school after all), and hold an April budget vote to cover lost Cranbury revenue? I think so, but I am not an accountant. The board ignores this question at their peril! There is a very real risk of defeat for the bond referendum in October.

    In a related topic, has anyone noticed that covering over the PHS courtyards eliminates, shrinks or adds hallways (!) to something like 10 perfectly good classrooms? Do the teachers in those rooms know they might have to push their stuff around in a cart or teach kids sitting on a staircase? So many questions.

  • I totally agree that it has nothing to do with hating Cranbury, this has to do with making a financially responsible decision for Princeton taxpayers.
    I watched the BOE mtg from the other night, sounds like we are tied to Cranbury forever. I question how/why the previous BOE approved this in the first place. We need to learn from past mistakes and think of long term consequences of decisions.
    BOE should have had this level of information several years ago re: Cranbury. Instead they have spent the past year dismissing public question and just stating that we could not afford to lose the Cranbury revenue.
    Now it has me wondering if the PHS expansion is going to be big enough!
    I can’t vote to approve the referendum at this time. There are too many unknown factors since this is larger based on “projected growth”. The PPS BOE has no control over 1) future Cranbury new housing, 2) any future Charter School requests for expansion, 3) future affordable housing requirement.
    Also, the BOE has not made public a detailed budget for the increased operating expenses of the new 5/6 School. Where will the money come from?
    How much additional tax revenue can be generated by affordable housing?

  • Not criticizing our Board volunteers either… but taxpayer approval of this referendum will place the final bricks in Princeton’s economic border wall and eliminate income diversity. This decision is really about what kind of town Princeton wants to be… inclusive or exclusive. Of course those who will profit (or hope to benefit) from a fast-tracked, super-sized building plan (PRS employees, architects, advisors, investors, competitive parents) are in favor. It was reported that “An Advisor” told the Board to push these projects through all at once. We also read that the Board “reduced” this planned binge by about 7.5 million, but the original binge included a 12% overage buffer….hmmmm. Why must PRS push 130 million more in debt all at once on taxpayers?

  • Absolutely. They are smart and hard working volunteers but colossal expensive mistakes have been made in the past when promising that it was going to be the last time as everything would be fixed and solved, long story short the taxpayers ended up paying more and more and more. With this referendum, even if they lower the $129 to $100, make no mistake, it will be more than what is estimated because when repairing and restoring, unexpected findings blow up the budget, and this is only construction. The school budget will increase, too because these expansions require hiring of more staff and with the overcrowding, the 2% cap could increase too; so, the diversity welcoming town of Princeton will become the wealthy enclave where middle class and senior citizens will be gone. This has nothing to do with hating public education or hating Cranbury, this is about hating to pay and pay and pay and for people with fixed income, no matter their skin color ( diversity is not only about race, it is also about economics, different age groups, different religions and political affiliations) those increases hurt their pockets and affect their lives.

  • Totally agree. Experience here tells us that it’s simply wise to ask questions, because history shows that PRS administrators make very expensive mistakes. For example, the $39.54 million dollars recently spent to renovate Princeton High School included $6,74 million dollars in unexpected cost overruns…then,when the District sued the builder for those overruns, Princeton taxpayers also ended up paying another $4.6 Million dollars in “damages” TO that Builder. That really happened. Parents who want to ensure that the healthiest, most prosperous life in Princeton becomes possible for their children & future generations would be wise to ask questions now. Millennials have already been denied a healthy future by older generations and overspending. Unfortunately, the burdens of debt and obsolesce cannot be undone. Unfortunately, heavy taxation changes towns.

  • True. They explained and as puzzling and complex as it is, the legal process is possible, tedious and with a cost but PPS went into legal fees when the Charter School wanted an expansion; then the legal fees and the time were not an issue. In any case, there is no ill will towards Cranbury students, it is the extremely expensive referendum that gets people into investigating, trying to find solutions to save more money. Perhaps, the athletics and the administration building monies should be looked into, again. There is plenty of space available at the old boro hall, and the athletics are still ok. To accuse the people against the referendum as public education’s haters and Cranbury’s haters is plain wrong. Just accept the fact that the previous referendums failed big time, and that this is even a larger amount of money.

  • Again, I would urge anyone who is interested in the Cranbury issue to watch last night’s board meeting. You don’t need to watch the whole meeting — they started out with Cranbury. It seems to be an incredibly complicated situation; it would be difficult to convey the complexity in writing, but it was easy to understand the oral presentations last night, complete with very clear fact-based graphs and charts. The evidence was compelling, and some skeptics in the audience seemed convinced. I watched it online–was not present in person. But we heard about the legal, financial, and demographic implications of severing the agreement with Cranbury. In short, ending the agreement would not help us, and in fact would hurt us. And legally, it would be difficult to sever even if we wanted to because of the vagaries of New Jersey state law. But I am completely overgeneralizing the thorough, nuanced, and convincing presentations of last night. Do watch — the entire meeting is available online.

  • Do you feel that is too much to ask the Board to provide its rationale for importing Cranbury students in writing?

    The community would likely have more confidence in the decision if they could see a comprehensive financial analysis as well as reasons why, educationally and socially, it is better for Princeton students to share their school with students who live several towns away.

  • I would recommend that you watch last night’s board meeting (April 24). The Cranbury situation was discussed in full. I would find it hard to believe that anyone would want to revisit the issue after the full explanation given last night.

  • In researching the possible cost of one item covered by the bond,
    I Googled electronic scoreboards: we need a proper scoreboard for one of the fields. It turns out that the price of the big ad might just pay for a good scoreboard.
    So I wondered, if financially comfortable residents were to create
    a fund for essentials, even beyond a scoreboard, could they reduce the bond to a number that all voters can support? The BoE would help by publishing its comprehensive, line item list of wants and needs. Generous donors would be memorialized on plaques, or bricks, at the new 5/6 and the renovated PHS.
    Not everyone in Princeton believes that the amount requested by the BoE, and the price asked by the architects, are well thought through, or reassuringly affordable to all families in town.

  • Those who question inaccurate math and injustices are great role models. The real way to deliver a healthy, wonderful future and planet to all Princeton kids is to remove any excesses in PRS plans. Our kids deserve justice & sustainability in all public policies, decisions, and plans made by adults.

  • At the meeting now. Some ladies in the front row are very disrespectful when they don’t like the comments of the public. We are talking adults here, rolling eyes, and stuff. Seriously? Not showing respect to a senior citizen? Unbelievable and pathetic, people get emotional instead of disagreeing agreeably. Also, Mr Sullivan, I am not sure if he tries to be funny, but in my opinion, he sounds condescending.

  • And another thing, some pro-referendum people like to accuse, without knowledge or proof, the others as if they are against public education. They are against colossal expansions not thought through. I have been at the HS, this year and previously, it is crowded?yes; are kids suffering? I doubt; PPS is still on the top of great schools’ list and still sends its graduates to Ivy League and other good universities. It is not the building, it is the teachers, the parents, and students’ motivation at the end. Don’t mislead people. Don’t accuse when you don’t know. A great majority of people opposing the referendum still have kids in school and they are not opposing improvements as we all know they are needed; some stuff in the referendum is considered extra, yes, not a priority, not a must. It needs to be thought through.

  • I have attended some of these meetings. I wouldn’t buy the property where SAVE was located just for administrative offices; I would check on the old boro hall and use it. I would stop some of the athletics’ improvements too. I have heard that Riverside school is not that crowded; perhaps, that should be looked into. And regarding Cranbury, the contract is over in 2020 and my perception is that PPS members are not even considering the possibility of crunching numbers and actually investigate if it is worthy. I have heard that Cranbury is building and building so, who knows, the overcrowding might keep happening because of that Cranbury contract and adding the new housing that Princeton will be building, too, by 2020 they will realize that this wasn’t enough and will go for another referendum. PPS members feel cross examined when the public asks questions, weird… they do allow the pro-referendum people to go on and on and cut the time when they don’t like what they hear. That is my percepcion.

  • As a taxpayer, public school parent, and supporter of the the referendum, I would like to make a few points. 1. The school board is made up of volunteers. They are also taxpayers in this town — they are not in the business of spending “other people’s money”–they are also spending their own. If anything, they have been sensitive and responsive to community input. 2. Many school board members have children who will not directly benefit from these improvements as they have already graduated or are older. This is not a self-serving referendum. It looks forward to the future of this community and its children. 3. The members of the school board are intelligent, thoughtful, and measured. Between them they have a wide variety of deep experience in finance, education, law, leadership, and service. We elected them for that reason. Any proposals they are making are the result of great consideration, and much of this process has involved stakeholders like teachers, students and parents. I don’t need to know every single alternative that was proposed, but much of the ongoing process has been public; for one thing, it is public knowledge that one item on the table was trying to acquire the Westminster Choir College property, but that fell through. 4. The most vocal opponents of the referendum seem to be the most ill-informed. If you can’t go to a school board meeting, watch it later online. There have been a number of public meetings that have detailed the architectural, educational, and financial issues associated with this proposal, and public comment has been welcomed. Information about the referendum is available online. People continue to argue that eliminating the Cranbury students will solve Princeton’s overcrowding problems and help with the budget, even though it has been explained time and time again why this is not the case. People propose solutions that are unworkable or ill-conceived, or accuse school board members of overlooking issues that have already been considered. 5. The bottom line is this — we need to create more space in ALL of the schools. We need to improve the HVAC systems. We need to improve the security of our schools. Yes, this will come at a cost, but this is not some pie-in-the-sky proposal — these are basic maintenance and building management issues that need to be addressed, and if they are not accomplished now, they’ll just have to be done a later date, and more than likely, at a greater cost to Princeton taxpayers. The cost, especially spread out over a number of years, is reasonable for what our children are gaining — the ability to go to school in a place that is safe, comfortable, and conducive to all sorts of learning. Personally, I would rather scrimp on other expenses than fight about the few hundred dollars of extra cost (which over time decreases to a mere $50 or so per year). 7. I suspect that there are other reasons for some of the negativity about the referendum — at least some of the opponents seem to be detractors of public education in general, or they don’t have children in the school system and don’t want to pay for services they are not utilizing themselves. 8. Fortunately, I think there is a silent majority out there that supports public education, that understands that investing in children now can only benefit us in the future. And hopefully the children who attend Princeton Public Schools will grow up and encourage their own neighbors, wherever they live, to believe that supporting public education is our most important civic duty.

  • I have attended at least one of the referendum meetings. What I saw was a sales job. Not once did anyone speak about considering alternatives such as discontinuing the sending relationship with Cranbury. Eliminating that would greatly relieve the overcrowding issue at the High School. The moneys to be spent on rebuilding Valley Road seem appropriate given the expected return on investment to handle the growth Princeton expects for both the elementary and middle schools. I can’t abide by the need to cram both the lower schools and high school improvements into one referendum. How about giving the Princeton community the opportunity to decide which plans we should approve. I for one would vote for Valley Road improvements and against the proposed High School boondoggle. If I had to vote on the combined plan, as it is proposed, I am voting against.

  • Even for folks who support public education, I’m not sure they all have “small class size” in their mind when they pay their taxes. The relationship between class size and student achievement has been non-conclusive at best. It’s a shame that tens of billions of dollars spent in public education has been based on such a dubious assumption.

    Also, pumping money to schools by raising taxes doesn’t necessarily protect property values. It is another false proposition those who like to spend other people’s money would like you to believe.

  • Several referendum supporters seem to say, “have you attended a meeting?” as if not attending a meeting is shameful; as if it disqualifies one from making an informed decision. But while attending meetings may be laudable, the case is in the substance of the argument and that should be made in writing.

  • Hi Lisa

    I support your call for civil discourse. However transparency in advocacy is also required. To me the three month timeline from the publishing of the demographic study (Jan ’18) to the submision of the bond proposal (Apr ’18), which barely includes time for requirements analysis, design, public comment and refinement, feels very rushed for such a large, long-term investment by the community. I am also disappointed that the materials provided by the board on the website do not provide any indication of an analysis of alternatives having been done. It seems like a step was skipped.

    Henry Singer

  • I didn’t see the ad in question, and I’m neither a paid PPS employee or elected board official. I’m an involved parent and taxpayer who is sick of seeing these strong negative comments against the referendum. Have you attended any of the PPS open forums? Have you attended any of the monthly board meetings? Many attempts have been made to inform the public and welcome questions and comments. And have you been in any of our schools lately? They are crowded, overcrowded. Our taxes are intended to provide for smaller class sizes but the classes grow and grow. And it’s not just at the high school, where Cranbury attends. Our elementary and middle schools are busting. If you don’t like their ideas, propose others. But something has to be done to protect our schools and property values and attacks done help. Be constructive.

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Tue 22

Annual Friends of the Hopewell Library Book Sale

January 22 @ 9:30 am - 9:00 pm
Tue 22

Princeton University Student Sculpture Exhibition

January 22 @ 10:00 am - 8:30 pm
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Media Arts Exhibition

January 22 @ 10:00 am - February 16 @ 4:30 pm
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Writers Support Group

January 22 @ 6:00 pm - 8:30 pm
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Wacky Wednesday Storytime at Barnes & Noble

January 23 @ 11:00 am - 11:30 am
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