Board of education to consider turning Valley Road property into intermediate school

The school board for the Princeton Public Schools is considering turning the Valley Road School property into an intermediate school for fifth and sixth graders to manage the district’s growing enrollment.

Some school officials were hoping the district could buy the 23-acre Westminster Choir College property to provide more space for students, new programs, and potential growth. Another bidder was chosen by Rider University to purchase Westminster, so school officials have moved to “plan B.”

Dafna Kendal, head of the school board’s facilities committee, said the district looked at renovating the Valley Road School at the intersection of Valley Road and Witherspoon Street late last year. The cost of converting the building, which is already owned by the district  and currently houses the administration’s central offices, was estimated to be between $4 million and $5 million. The district did not have enough money in capital reserves at the time, and officials were also waiting to see what happened with the Westminster property.

A recent demographic study projects that about 900 children will attend John Witherspoon Middle School by 2022. The school, which currently houses students grades 6-8, is already at capacity.

“The board’s concern is that we manage this growth in the best way for the children and the taxpayers,” Kendal said. “A plan we came up with is to make Valley Road a school for fifth and sixth graders. The plan would free up room at every elementary school as well as John Witherspoon Middle School. Since we already own that property, it would be a cost-effective solution for the tax payers.”

The nine-acre Valley Road property once was a school and already has playing fields. The older portion, which is now boarded up, would be demolished as part of the proposal to build a new school on the property.

“It has a rich tradition in our community,” Kendal said of the school property. “It is walkable to the library, the  arts center, town, the middle school, the high school, and several neighborhoods. If we consider the schools to be the backbone to our community as I do, it makes perfect sense to utilize Valley Road to the fullest potential for our schools. I can’t think of a better use for it.”

The school board is still working out next steps, expansion plans, and a referendum residents would vote on regarding funding any expansion. The school board is also looking at adding three stories to the high school to accommodate growth there.

Some town officials were hoping the school district would buy Westminster and move its central offices there so the municipality could have the Valley Road property and sell the old borough hall property at the corner of Stockton Street and Nassau Street. The schools and the municipality are each run by a separate governing body and the town does not have any jurisdiction over the school board. The Valley Road property is already zoned for education purposes, so the school board would not need permission from the planning board to build a new school there.

A story in another publication made it sound like Mayor Liz Lempert was proposing that the district swap the Valley Road property for the former borough hall property so the town could have all its services in a central location. The former borough hall property is only 2.75 acres and is not centrally located.

Lempert told Planet Princeton it is not true that she has asked the district for the Valley Road building. Prior to consolidation, there was a plan to expand the fire station on Witherspoon Street by using a part of the old Valley Road  site, she said. That proposal was submitted to the school district, but was not accepted. Lempert said a reporter asked her last week if she was open to discussing a swap ofValley Road for the former borough hall.

“As you know, the district is facing increased enrollment, and may need to build a new school to accommodate that growth. Ensuring that the school district has the space they need to educate the kids in the community, and that they do this in a cost-effective way, is important for the tax payers and the entire community,” Lempert told Planet Princeton. “I’m committed to working with the district in a unified way.”

Lempert said she told the reporter she was open to discussing the idea with the district, as well as other possible options, and that any ultimate solution that involved municipal property would need to make sense financially for the municipality. “Being open to discussing something is very different from advocating a particular course of action,” she said.

School Board President Patrick Sullivan was contacted for this story but did not respond.