In 2016 I wrote a headline, “Princeton School Board Election-Huge Tax Increases Pre-ordained. “ As the town now enters 2018, it is evident that all predictions regarding the growth of Princeton Public Schools costs will be exceeded and the problem may well become a tax and fiscal crisis for our Town. How so?
First and foremost, Princeton Public Schools costs per student are totally out of control and far exceed those of other high performing districts, even those in Mercer County. Costs are up to 38% more on a $100 million budget. These tens of millions in excess costs are further aggravated by the tuition cost reimbursement by the Cranbury high school sending district, which is underfunded annually by over $1 million. This grievously impacts the town’s ability to budget or fund other priority needs without significantly increasing property taxes overall as the percentage of real estate taxes allocated to the Princeton Public Schools keeps growing.
Second, the current demographic projections for the Princeton Public Schools and related plans to accommodate predicted growth mandates a major bond issue to fund school construction for hundreds of additional students in several schools. Teachers and administrative personnel will increase. Concurrently, embedded in the referendum, and initially not highlighted by the Princeton Public Schools, is a spectrum of seminal changes in our local educational system itself . Approving the referendum funding gives de facto approval to changing in significant ways how our students will be taught.
Third, actions that might eliminate or reduce both forecasted increases in enrollment and the scale of capital investments are not being fully explored and certainly not aggressively pursued. The Cranbury sending district arrangement, non-resident and various mix of ineligible students comprise a list of hundreds the Princeton Public Schools is or may not be required to admit.
Fourth and most important, the demographic data and trends used to justify the huge expenditures now being planned have not been fully vetted and are likely seriously flawed. They ignore or place no credence regarding probable impact of macro-scale programs now being initiated or greatly expanded at the federal level by the Secretary of Education, including school choice, vouchers, charter schools, etc. These programs may reduce future enrollments at the Princeton Public Schools as there are large numbers of empty seats in area private schools of diverse character plus current under enrollment and the closure of many financially troubled schools, especially those with religious affiliation. Vouchers and school choice options alone could significantly increase enrollments and address financial viability of many area schools and enable reopening of several .
Personally, I have spent over 30 years, most often as a volunteer, involved in and strongly supporting both public and private education at all levels. In Princeton, I have always supported ensuring continuity of treasured traditions of excellence, I am reminded of my first election campaign for the school board in 1992 and trying to “ foster a climate for constructive change. “ There was detailed, fact based objective coverage of all candidates in local media, even citing my seven priorities listed below. Few of the seven were addressed or even seriously considered during a six-year tenure and in my view still require action. The seven priorities were:
Restore the school board’s proper role- governance
Get educational priorities straight,
Stop the board’s preoccupation with raising revenues (taxes) ,
Start reducing and controlling costs,
Stop explosive growth in salaries and benefits,
Focus on performance and accountability.
In 2018, in response to these mounting crises, a collaborative effort must be mounted among area residents regardless of political party affiliation to elect school board members to seriously represent taxpayers and hold the district accountable to the entire community, not just the education establishment , which is currently in total control . Concurrently, the closely related collaborative efforts must be mounted to defeat the Princeton Public Schools facilities referendum.
Mr. Clearwater is a Princeton resident and former school board member.