The Princeton Public Schools Board of Education is slated to vote Tuesday night on a resolution to demolish the Valley Road school building on Witherspoon Street. The meeting will take place in the cafeteria at the John Witherspoon School at 8 p.m.
According to the resolution, the board will use school district money “for the demolition of the building, if possible to include in the 2014-2015 fiscal year or the first available budget where funds can be appropriated.”
The school board will consider proposals for the use and purchase of the land, according to the resolution.
The demolition is controversial. Some residents have lobbied for the school to be taken over by a private non-profit and converted into a community center where civic groups and other educational groups can rent space at reasonable rates.
The Valley Road School has not been used as a public school since 1975. The older portion of the school facing Witherspoon Street was used by Princeton Community Television until this year.
School board members no longer want the building to be a liability, and have said that the district does not have the resources to maintain or renovate it. The board reviewed two proposals from the citizen group and local officials. It deemed the citizen group’s proposal for the nonprofit community center unrealistic and questioned whether the group could raise the money to renovate the building. The proposal made by local officials was to demolish the school, expand the Witherspoon Street firehouse and relocate the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad to the new building.
According to the resolution to demolish the building, “the board has received no private or public proposal that meets the legal, philosophical, practical and fiscal requirements.”
Representatives from citizen group, which is called the Valley Road School Adaptive Reuse Committee, found a developer this fall who specializes in adaptive reuse projects who was interested in taking on the project and financing it. The group received more than 2,000 signatures from residents who supported putting a referendum on the ballot asking the governing body to negotiate an agreement with the school board about the building for the non-profit center. The governing body refused to put the issue on the ballot, saying it was not under its jurisdiction to do so.
Several local officials wanted the school building demolished so the fire house could expand at the site. It is not clear what happened with that proposal. Behind the scenes, the governing body has been discussing the fire house expansion in closed session. The governing body met with representatives of the First Aid and Rescue Squad in closed session last week. Earlier this year, officials asked the squad to reconsider its recent decision to expand on its existing site on Harrison Street, and proposed that the existing first aid squad properties be used for affordable housing.
But one question that has been raised repeatedly is how would the firehouse expansion be paid for? The town has $97 million in outstanding debt, and members of a citizens finance advisory committee have advised elected officials that incurring debt for new capital expenditures in the next few years would put too much pressure on the town’s finances.
Without any new borrowing, the annual cost of paying off Princeton’s debt will remain at about $9 million a year until 2017 and fall off sharply in 2020, the committee said. Every $5 million of additional borrowing adds $430,000 to the annual debt service, the group estimated. Committee members said the town will likely have to look for alternative ways to pay for future construction projects such as spending down the town’s surplus and raising taxes.