Proposed price tag for Princeton Public Schools construction referendum: $137 million (updated)

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. 





  1. Where does Patrick Sullivan get that figure on Scarsdale spending twice what Princeton does? In per pupil terms it’s $27,000 vs $23,000, far from double. Scarsdale moreover is by some measures the richest public school district in the country. I suppose he doesn’t want to address why Princeton spends 50% more per pupil than West Windsor and Montgomery. Why is this proposed spending necessary and how can Princeton’s sky high property taxes be justified?

    1. Why is an entirely new school needed for “5th and 6th graders”? I’m sure if it becomes reality, it would be staffed with its own principal, assistant (or two) principal, office staff, guidance staff, full-time nurse, and building/facilities staff, plus lunchroom staff and whoever is paid to arrange/supervise busing arrivals/departures.

      How many dedicated 5th and 6th grade classrooms would even be facilitated in a stand-alone school? Assuming just 20 kids per class, is there really a need for 4-5 new classrooms per grade level, for at most 200 new students? To make such a narrowly focused school work, are they proposing busing kids from one end of Princeton to the other to fill the new seats?

      What happens with the facilities that were already servicing these students? Do they become “storage closets” at existing schools? Offices? Do remaining students become more “spread out” across all the remaining classrooms, lowering the teacher/student ratio, without any reduction in salaries, which is an uncomfortable topic but money doesn’t fall from the sky so what’s the plan on that?

      What are the ongoing operating costs for such a school?

      1. We are educating a large passle of students from surrounding communities, and the amount of tuition Princeton is reimbursed does not cover the cost of having them. Further, because of this, we have to increase school sizes. Bigger is not necessarily better. Yes, losing that tuition would cost money in the short term. But let’s see a 10-year cost benefit analysis instead of the insulting platitudes school officials have given the public up until this point.

  2. $137 million and not including the operating costs? And a 3.3% tax increase this year? Princeton voters have to ask themselves if they want to keep a middle class. This is insane.

  3. From Wikipedia: “In 2013 [Scarsdale, NY] was ranked first in CNN Money’s list of “top earning towns” with a median family income close to $300,000″
    Just the mere fact that Patrick Sullivan is using this town as a comparison is a clear indication that he should be voted out of office as soon as possible.

  4. This from the man who called a 76 seat expansion to PCS that directed about $1 million from the district a tax? At least 76 kids are getting educated on that whopping $47 per household. This is insanity. Princeton taxpayers have neither a student body that can be replicated nowhere else requiring $27k per kid, nor infinite resources to pay for Sullivan’s foolishness.

  5. I hope you will fact check that statistic from Scarsdale – I believe that New York State has a much different model for funding their schools, with significantly less reliance on local property taxes, and more support coming from the state.

  6. I think Patrick Sullivan is out of touch with the community he serves. Is Patrick Sullivan out of his mind comparing Princeton, NJ to Scarsdale, NY? Scarsdale, NY has a median income* more than double that of Princeton, NJ. If this proposed construction is about making Princeton, NJ look like Scarsdale, NY, I am voting NO for this. How was this job bid to the Architects – were they given any type of budget constraints or were they just told to make Princeton look like Scarsdale? If it was the latter, Princeton BOE just waisted a lot of money on Architects as it is back to the drawing board with some budget constraints folks.

    *According to Sperling’s Best Places:

    1. Scarsdale, NY: The income per capita is $113,535, which includes all adults and children. The median household income is $241,453.

    2. Princeton, NJ: The income per capita is $63,193, which includes all adults and children. The median household income is $116,875.

    1. it was as trench to get to Scaresdale – when someone says they already took a sharp pencil to it – c’mon

  7. Parents in Princeton should look at New Jersey state published data on schools, as recently reported on sites and West Windsor appears to be over-represented in the top rankings, yet I read here (and elsewhere) that the burden on local tax payers to support education in West Windsor is (much?) less than in Princeton. And yes, West Windsor seems to do that while also doing a better job patching potholes, too (seriously, although this last part is based on more narrow, first-person observation).

  8. Princeton is inarguably a very lovely town. We do not live there, but have a high-aptitude child in a top private middle school there, so we drive through Princeton at least twice each day (some days less, due to carpooling). This child’s younger sibling has also been accepted to this same private school, and would begin in 2018-2019.

    For primarily career reasons (although March weather provides its own special motivation), however, we have opted to pursue opportunities outside of Central New Jersey and outside the region. At the time we enrolled our first child in the Princeton private middle school, we made a decision to move closer to Princeton, so our child could be closer and have more access to classmates, etc. While we have higher than average income and assets, and were prepared for sticker-shock, we were nonetheless flabbergasted with the extreme expensiveness of the area’s cost of housing and high property taxes, relative to what you get for the money and the burden, in terms of quality of life and provided services. If traffic was much less a factor than it is, but more critically, road maintenance less egregiously a disaster, perhaps some of the initial repulsion of the high cost of living would have been mitigated. But driving past the smaller, older houses, or more modern structures with mildewed siding, abutting streets with broken and crumbling asphalt, there has been a dawning realization that the entire place feels like its on a rotting foundation. Princeton University is obviously an exception to all of this, and thank god it exists as the local economic engine and magnet that it is. Articles like this, about a fabled school district that most around the rest of the ENTIRE WORLD would look on with in envy and would consider an OPULENTLY funded district already, is quite depressing, if that’s the right word for it.

    The sticker shock local residents live with in tax burden extends too to the private school set. While we do not disdain public school education or its virtues, with mom and dad both products to some extent of public education, it was the direct observation of misallocated resources in other school districts that compelled us to act and to put our kids into private school, and fortunately for the Princeton borough and its immediately surroundings, it has several fantastic schools. But even here, the extraordinary costs that are unique to the area are passed through to the consumer, and they are egregious compared with other regional alternatives. When fully loaded, a year of MIDDLE SCHOOL likely costs more than $40,000 — plus probably $2,000 driving annually as a result of vehicle maintenance that comes from being on decrepit, disgracefully ill maintained Mercer County Roads. A comparable middle school, outside of the area (and indeed, outside the northeast), as ranked in national rankings, can cost as little as $31,000-$32,000.

    Add to that the usual “gimmicks” overtaxed, yet under budgeted, localities employ, such as speed traps and aggressive traffic policing, where a morning drop-off or afternoon-pickup is at the peril of not attentively paying closest attention to variable speed limit signage that change literally on the SAME street within 500 yards. Yet, if you report an aggressive driver, or observe vandalism being committed, among other things once notices on repetitive drives, immediate calls to the police department result in invitations to come in and file a report (but no immediate response).

    I offer that evidence to validate the argument that your costs, Princeton, no matter which way you turn, are *completely* out of line with available alternatives. With the opportunity to earn about the same if not more income, at lower taxes, in warmer climates and with access to comparable schools (but there’s always give and take, and exceptions), families like ours are choosing to leave.

    As I read the School Board Chairman’s comments, I failed to see any reporting about recent demography: Is Princeton growing, and is its population of school-aged kids EXPANDING, such that new incremental infrastructure tis incremental is warranted? My understanding that parts of this greater region have seen population DECLINES of as much as 10% since 2007 … yet here’s Princeton, already with tax burdens that are bringing high social commentary on a normally quiet board, proposing another 1/8th of a BILLION DOLLARS in incremental spending which will yield new buildings (including a new administrative office!) and facilities that won’t even have operating costs provided for in the spending plan.

    Princeton, you better get real, and real fast. If you are committed to the region, and if you haven’t noticed already, you are being left with financial burdens that exceed your reasonable abilities to pay for them. Instead of sparkling new buildings with new staff for fifth and sixth graders, however real or necessary such physical construction may be, you should be looking at that and EVERYTHING ELSE and figuring out how to do MORE with LESS, and right now, before it really becomes unfixable (maybe it is already, and I’m wrong on that).

  9. Last
    time (around year 2000), we approved a bond issues of ~$60mil. It ran
    over budget and cost ~$90mil if memory serves. And our taxes went up by
    150%. I am against increasing our school size to serve other
    communities such as Cranbury, all the while not charging them as much as
    it costs Princeton to provide. Including especially building out
    schools like this. I’ll be voting against this.

  10. Does it make any sense at all to try to push through this referendum while the send-receive agreement with Cranbury is ending in 2020?

      1. Can they do that without letting the township residents having a vote on the renewal?

        1. Yes. The Board has that authority since they are our elected representatives.

        2. Unfortunately yes. So please don’t be suckered. If they are going to make these commitments and then pass the bills onto residents, people need to drive a stake in the ground.

  11. Those of us appalled by the proposed expansion — both its proposed cost and its enthusiasm for the education fashion of the month — should oppose not just the proposed expansion, but also the 750 “affordable” housing units that an ever-so-ignorant judge seeks to impose upon our town. If those 750 units are approved as apartment set asides (ca. 20 affordable units for each 100 units approved and built), the town would be adding 3,750 units, occupied by transients with no stake in the town. Those 3,750 units would represent a nearly 50% increase in our town’s housing stock — forcing a huge increase in classroom space, while replacing many of our core single family neighborhoods with apartment blocks, crowding our narrow streets, stressing our infrastructure, and placing huge additional burdens on our police and volunteer fire fighters.

    Princeton needs to stop pursuing fashion statements, rein in our various resident funded budgets, and begin to focus on preserving our lovely little town in recognizable form.

    1. Is there a legal path residents can follow to demand a referrendum on the Cranbury agreement extension?

      1. The only path is to elect school board members who are fiscally responsible. There was no almost no discussion of taxes in the last election. There needs to be a slate of candidates pledging to not raise taxes.

  12. The Cranbury sending deal is why I plan to vote against the referendum. It might make sense to import tuition-paying students when you have extra space, but not when you’re full. The calculations justifying the arrangement never include the actual costs, only the cost of the teachers. Perhaps this explains why the numbers never seem to add up (thank you Krystal).

  13. “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.”

    The PPS operating budget always looks a lot smaller than it actually is. That seems to be the mindset of Mr. Sullivan.

  14. Why does the tax increase seem to fall only on existing residents? If we need an additional school then we must have an increasing population. Is this increase not factored into the numbers? Or are all new residents assumed to be low income, putting the burden on the existing tax base? Vote no.

  15. Do taxpayers even want a separate 5/6 school and larger high school? Rather than build a new 5/6 school, an expansion of JWMS would have to be more cost effective since it would eliminate the need for duplicated personnel (principal, vice principal, counselors, nurse, gym teachers, art, music, aids, cafeteria…..). What would be the additional annual operating costs of running another school?

    Regarding the high school, the agreement with Cranbury will end 2020 if we don’t renew the agreement then the need for a large expansion would be eliminated. I can’t imagine the strain on the houses surrounding the high school with additional students. 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 lose $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?

    The decision to enter into an agreement with Cranbury was short-sighted, why do current taxpayers have to live with a mistake made by the previous BOE? Sorry Cranbury, but we just don’t have the space to host you anymore.

  16. School officials are still accepting feedback – who’s giving feedback and they’re reacting to what? A comment re Princeton’s costs exceeding WW and Montgomery is frightening. Operating costs will surely increase – we combined two towns and didn’t see any reductions – we certainly will see operating cost growth. Why not sell the Vally Road land to a developer to offset costs – whatever true costs will be.
    It’s difficult to have any faith in a group that educates Cranbury students at a loss and won’t quit doing it.

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