Letters: Princeton Public Schools costs and our town’s fiscal crisis
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.
Much grateful thanks to Mr. Clearwater for his sane, down-to-earth elucidation of the situation. Balance is in order and you can’t get blood from a stone. In these especially difficult times, when many people are barely holding on to keep their owned homes of many decades, it’s not only an affront – but exceedingly stressful to a household when a significant part of one’s life is spent worrying about whether they can remain in their home – so that a specific segment of the population can have nothing but the very best.
Another major impact is Princeton University and the Institute for Advance Studies both sending hundreds of students to the public school without contributing in school taxes. No one talks about this as these institutions have a stronghold on the town.
Well, the huge legal fees being spent by the BOE in the harangue with the Charter school can’t help the situation! Tax money down the drain!
We can note problems, but the only useful response is for all neighborhoods, in a united voice, to stand as equals to the schools, the town government, and the University, each of which has a powerful voice, while we have none.
The BOE is more open than ever, but still determined to push through a $128 million bond in October, followed by a November operating budget increase of 3.5%, not the usual 2%, and still find itself “underfunded.” Steve Cochrane is admirably focused but seems to believe that this will get through as is.
If you want to work with us on this, we have started a Citizens’ Advisory Cmtee on school expansion to look at costs, plans, alternatives, and problems. Feel free to contact me at email@example.com. Attend the BOE’s public meeting on March 13th, at PHS cafeteria, where costs are to be presented!
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 even 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 $1.05M?
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.
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