The Princeton Public Schools Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday night to appropriate funding for the demolition of the old Valley Road School that fronts Witherspoon Street.
The resolution did not include a dollar figure for the estimated cost of the demolition preparation, the demolition, or any other financial details.
At the beginning of the brief board discussion on the issue, School Board President Tim Quinn clarified what the board was voting on. He said the board was not approving the demolition of the building.
“The board is approving the appropriation of funds to demolish the building,” Quinn said. “We need to hire experts to ascertain the cost of demolishing the building at a future date.”
The resolution the board was originally slated to vote on was replaced with a revised resolution to “appropriate funds to prepare 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 board will entertain proposals for the use and purchase, where possible, of the land at 369 Witherspoon.”
Experts will provide a demolition cost estimate to the school board and flag any issues the board should be aware of for the demolition, Quinn said. Board members did not say how much the expert will cost.
The school, built in 1918, was the first integrated school in Princeton. It was used as a school until 1975, and then as the municipal offices for Princeton Township. Until this year it was also the home of Princeton Community Television, which recently moved to the old Princeton Borough Hall.
The Valley Road School was named one of the top 10 endangered historic sites in the state last May by Preservation New Jersey. School officials say it would cost more than $10 million to rehabilitate the building. Citizens who want to see the building preserved claim the structure could be preserved at a much lower cost.
The demolition of the school is controversial. Some residents have lobbied for the school to be taken over by a private non-profit group and converted into a community center where civic groups and other educational groups can rent space at low rates.
The school board reviewed two proposals from the citizen group and local officials. It deemed the citizen group’s proposal for the non-profit 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.
Representatives from the citizen group, which is called the Valley Road School Adaptive Reuse Committee, found a developer this fall who specializes in adaptive reuse projects, is interested in taking on the project, and can finance it. The group received more than 2,100 signatures from residents who supported putting a referendum on the ballot asking the governing body to negotiate an agreement with the school board 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.
During public comment at the school board meeting last night, resident John Clearwater, an advocate for the non-profit community center concept, questioned whether the school board has the right to sell the property and whether the board is the sole owner of the school, given that the property previously belonged to the township.
“It may not pass court muster when the Township’s ability to transfer property to the school board is questioned,” Clearwater said. He said the building deteriorated because it was allowed to deteriorate over time and was not properly maintained. “It should no longer be an unfunded obligation of the school board,” he said. School officials have argued the district can’t continue to spend money on a building that is no longer used for educational purposes.
Resident Kip Cherry told the school board the developer remains interested in the non-profit community center project.
Several local officials want the school building demolished so the fire house can expand at the site. That proposal is still up in the air though. The Princeton governing body has not decided whether to move forward with it.
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 the First Aid and Rescue Squad now has its sights set on other municipal property for its new building.
One question that has been raised repeatedly is how the firehouse expansion would 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.