Letters: Princeton residents deserve more information before voting on school referendum

To the Editor,
The October 2 Princeton Board of Education Facilities Referendum is actually a vote on major changes to our educational system. On February 8 Superintendent Steve Cochrane, architect Prakesh Nair, and educator Heidi Hayes Jacobs presented their plans for the future of our schools—new pedagogy and open plan buildings with few interior walls that are a rebranded version of the failed open space schools of the 60s and 70s. Approving the construction funding gives de facto approval to drastically changing how students will be taught.
The presentation was heavy on PR and theoretical educational philosophy but lacked hard data. As a former teacher, teacher trainer, and textbook creator I question many of their assumptions. My online research yielded many negative reviews but not one positive review of schools that have enacted this new plan.
Princeton residents deserve more information before we vote on these changes. As a resident who will be asked to absorb another tax increase and more importantly, as someone who cares about education, I urge Mr. Cochrane, the school board, local media, and Princetonians to research open plan school buildings and open space schools. We need to know how this change will affect all students. We need information about successful and unsuccessful schools. If that means postponing the referendum, so be it. This radical change is consequential and deserves extensive community-wide discussion.
Parents, be aware that the proposed plan is an experiment that we cannot afford to have fail. The prime losers will be your children. Taxpayers, you’re being asked to pay for new construction and renovations that involve extensive structural changes, including removing walls and corridors. Failure will mean rebuilding the schools.
The quality of our schools is a major attraction of raising children in Princeton. What will happen if this new scheme does not succeed?
Sheila Siderman

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3 comments
  • The BOE has already spent too much money on this referendum (demographic studies, architect plans, bidding on buildings/land) before doing research into what taxpayers even want. Do we want a separate 5/6 school and larger high school?The Superintendent receives annual bonuses based on meeting certain goals set by the BOE and part of last years bonus was based on him moving the referendum along, so clearly he is motivated to get this passed. They have not provided any detailed financial information to show all of the costs to build and maintain these new spaces and the long term impact on taxes. The demographer has created 4 different studies in the past year, each one more dramatic than the last. Feels like a scare tactic to show how we have no choice but to expand. There are flaws with the demographers studies, and many assumptions based on potential future housing for COAH even though the town has not come to a settlement with Fair Share regarding the number of affordable housing units.

    The agreement with Cranbury will end 2020, the Superintendent has stated that he has no plans to consider what the scenario would look like if we did not renew the agreement with Cranbury. How can Princeton taxpayers commit to accepting 280 students from Cranbury (and growing) to the high school when we don’t have space for our own future growth. Why should Princeton taxpayers have to pay for an expansion to accommodate Cranbury students? Don’t we deserve to be provided with a proper cost analysis to show the Cranbury impact? The BOE keeps stating that we will loose $4.8 million, but that is the gross revenue amount not net of expenses. Princeton’s per pupil costs reported to NJDOE show 78% variable, 22% fixed expenses. So isn’t the Cranbury revenue net of expenses only 22% or $1.05?

    With the recent change in the federal tax code, most taxpayers will not be able to deduct their property taxes, so any increase in our property taxes should be justified. It is not financially responsible for the BOE to justify a new bond referendum by stating that we are about to finish paying off the last round of bonds in 2022 so that we can simply replace the old debt with new debt.

  • I was disappointed to see the coverage in town topics failed to mention any of the excellent points that are made in these two letters. In order to make an informed choice on October 2nd, the citizens a Princeton should have the opportunity to consider alternatives

  • Thanks, Sheila. I heard the architects presentation at JWS in the AM. Was struck by four things: 1- he’s a polished presenter; 2- the mainstay of his talk seemed to be bright shiny objects (see the pretty school in Spain: ooh; see the pretty school in Belgium: aah.; 3- zero mention of the open school plans of the 60’s and 70’s, including WWP-S in our own backyard! This is not NEW; and 4- no data to document improvement. Where is the data that says, after five years students in this new school raised their test scores/grades/etc., (pick your metric), and are better than his pejorative “cells & bells” characterization. What’s next, teachers have small hands? We are owed much better. Where is the talk of how Princeton schools/education can be more like, say, Finland – -the top ranked country? Also, the presenter didn’t make allowances for demographics, and PPS is not like one all-wealthy, all professional, driven parental school like an international school in Singapore.
    The overall impression was “we think this consultant is cool, and has the shiniest objects” rather than, these are the three top drivers of education, let’s implement a plan that allows for that at a good cost/benefit ratio.

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