The Princeton Public Schools District is educating 163 more students than last year, with nearly half the new students coming from Princeton University’s Merwick-Stanworth Faculty Apartments, school officials said Tuesday night.
Total enrollment in the district is up 4.6 percent over last fall, with 3,700 students enrolled as of Sept. 27 compared with 3,537 students in September of 2015.
Enrollment at the John Witherspoon Middle School is up by 50 students, and enrollment at Community Park Elementary School is up by 38 students. Enrollment at Riverside Elementary is up by 25 students, and enrollment at Johnson Park is up by 23 students. Enrollment at Princeton High is up by 18 students so far compared with last year, and enrollment at Littlebrook Elementary is up by nine students.
Students who live at Merwick-Stanworth, AvalonBay and Copperwood account for 106 of the 163 new students in the district, Superintendent Steve Cochrane said.
Seventy-five of the new students in the district are from the Merwick-Stanworth development, 21 are from Cooperwood, and 10 are from AvalonBay.
Enrollment is expected to continue to rise as more of the new apartment units are filled. About 100 of the 325 units at Merwick-Stanworth are still unoccupied, Cochrane said. About 10 percent of the 280 apartment units at AvalonBay are occupied, he said.
Cooperwood was previously a 55-and-older community but started accepting residents under the age of 55 after the state changed regulations for 55-and-older communities.
School district policy caps classroom sizes at 25 students in elementary school and 30 students in higher levels, Cochrane said.
Dina Shaw, co-president of the PTO at John Witherspoon, has three children in the district – one at the high school and two at John Witherspoon. She asked school officials what plans are in place to educate hundreds of new students.
Some parents say Princeton should no longer be a receiving district for students from Cranbury, she said.
“At least Cranbury pays to attend our schools. Neither Princeton University nor the Institute for Advanced Study pay the schools, yet a large number of their children are being educated,” she said. “I realize the university gives money to the town, but it is not paying our bills for teachers and buildings. What is our plan to get them to pay their fair share? Fair is fair.”
Taxes will continue to go up for residents, putting an unfair burden on them, Shaw said. Some classrooms at John Witherspoon have 27 or more students, she said.
“I did not move to Princeton to have classes of that size,” she said. “The high school has one of largest populations it has ever had and it is growing. What is the plan?”
Cochrane said the district has more space it can use at John Witherspoon Middle School. The district could hire more teachers next year to reduce class sizes at the school, he said. “We have a little room to expand there,” he said. “The high school is a question mark.”
Some schools don’t have many more classrooms that could be used for expansion purposes. Cochrane said district officials are developing a proposal for a referendum. The school board looking at approving architects for a capacity study for all school buildings.
“Once we’ve put a plan in place we will go to the state,” Cochranse said. “A long-term plan will be looking at a referendum, but now we need approval for short-term solutions. We can rent space in other places nearby to move some of classrooms. We may have to look at trailers and cottages. The state will approve the plan as we have a more permanent plan to handle the issues.”
Voters must approve referendums. The district would borrow money to pay for any expansion, and taxpayers would pay back the bonds.
“This is a community that supports learning and education. I’m confident when we sit down and talk about the needs we have in district, we will find a way to make it work,” Cochrane said.
School Board President Andrea Spalla said borrowing would be budgeted so there would be as little tax impact on residents as possible.
“As old bonds retire, then we would take out new bonds. The tax impact would be minimal, not a sudden spike,” Spalla said. “The bond from 2001 is maturing in 2022. If did have another bond coming in we would feather it in so we would pay less interest up front so there would not be a dramatic increase as we move from one bond to another.”
Shaw said it isn’t fair that many residents are paying skyrocketing property taxes when the schools receive no voluntary payments from the Institute and the University and do not pay tax on all its property. The school voluntarily pays property taxes on residential properties. School taxes account for about 50 percent of property taxes in Princeton.
Cochrane said the University and Institute are “long-term partners in education” with the school district.
“They pay a payment in lieu of taxes that goes to the municipality,” he said. “I’ve asked the mayor for numbers so we can begin that conversation.”
A demographic study of the district has the school district peaking in 2017-18 in terms of student population, but Cochrane said the actual enrollment in the district is 150 students above what was projected. It is unclear at this point whether enrollment will peak and come down still, or just accelerate, he said.