The proposed bond referendum for the Princeton Public Schools could be as high as $137 million, school officials announced Tuesday night. About $20 million could be funded by the state, but that aid comes in the form of debt service, an architect for the school district said.
Costs that the school board wants the public to approve include a new school for fifth and sixth graders, a new administration building, an expanded high school, upgrades to all district schools, a turf athletic field, furniture and fixtures. The price tag does not include costs to maintain the new school or other new spaces.
The bond would be paid back by the taxpayers of Princeton over a 30-year period beginning in 2020. Old debt from previous referendums and new debt would overlap for four years, making the cost higher for the first few years, officials said.
For 2020, a homeowner with a house assessed at the Princeton average of $837,000 would pay $680 annually for debt service. The second year, the amount for the “average” homeowner would peak at $827 for the year, school officials said. When old debt is paid off, the amount would decrease to $319 per year for the average homeowner. Over a 30-year period, the cost for the average homeowner who owns a home that is assessed at $837,000 would average out to $167 per year, officials said.
Voters will be asked to approve the referendum in a special election on Oct. 2. First the New Jersey Department of Education must approve the district’s plan. District officials are still accepting feedback and making revisions, and will vote on submitting the proposed referendum to the state at the board’s April meeting. The plan must be submitted to the state by April 15.
The school board voted on Tuesday night to buy the former SAVE animal shelter property at 900 Herrontown Road at a cost of $1.75 million. The property will be used for offices for maintenance and facilities staff, as well as for parking.
School officials are also proposing a budget for the 2018-19 academic year that includes a 3.63 percent increase in the local tax levy. The owner of a home assessed at the town’s average of $837,000 would see property taxes increase by $159 for the year. The budget includes an additional $500,000 in state aid over this academic yer. The proposed budget will be discussed in more detail at the board’s April 24 public meeting.
School officials said the bond referendum balances the need for space, security improvements, and a desire to align learning spaces to learning goals. Superintendent of School Steve Cochrane said the budget for the bond referendum balances fiscal responsibility to taxpayers with a commitment to a high quality education.
School Board member Michele Tuck Ponder said she is concerned about protecting the diversity of the town and would like to see a pencil taken to the proposal to eliminate any unnecessary spending. School Board Member Bill Hare said two school board committees have already taken a pencil to the budget and eliminated numerous line items. He said the referendum is a bare bones spending plan that doesn’t include extras.
School Board President Patrick Sullivan said he too is concerned about economic diversity in Princeton. He said the recent fair housing court decision and the new affordable housing that will be built in Princeton as a result of that decision will help balance things.
“Nobody wants to build a palace, but on the other hand, Scarsdale, New York spends probably twice as much as we do on education,” Sullivan said. “It’s a different kind of community obviously, but I think we are all working towards that goal.”
Resident Mary Clurman said she is concerned about middle class flight from Princeton and the continuing trend of more modest homes being sold, knocked down, and turned into million dollar homes.
“Why not do the high school now, and wait to build the new Valley Road School later, after the old debt service has been retired?” Clurman said.
Hare said the board was advised not to try to pass two separate referendums within a few years of each other, because it would be almost impossible to pass both.
Resident Kip Cherry said the district needs to be creative and find items to cut from the proposal. “The middle class is being squeezed out of Princeton,” she said.
“Growing up in Princeton, the special thing about it was that it was diversified,” Cherry said. “Taxes are really putting a lot of pressure on that. This town is extremely special. All the folks who live in the John Witherspoon area and in my neighborhood really can’t afford this kind of increase.”
Residents have also raised questions about the sending and receiving agreement with Cranbury.
At the board meeting the previous week, officials said the agreement with Cranbury is advantageous for the Princeton Public Schools.
The total budget for the district this academic year is about $95 million. The general fund budget is $87.5 million. Cranbury pays $4.9 million in tuition for 280 students, Sullivan said at that meeting.
“That’s about 10 percent of our operating budget,” Sullivan said. “Cranbury is not the reason for our expansion. The broad Princeton population growth is the reason.”
Editor’s note: Actually Mr. Sullivan overstated the percent of the revenue for the operating budget from Cranbury tuition — $4.9 million is only 5.6 percent of $87.5 million, or only about half what he stated at that meeting. The figure is about 5.2 percent of the $95 million budget. Yet Cranbury’s 280 students comprise 7.4 percent of the district’s total student population of 3,800 students.