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Princeton School Board drops purchase of Herrontown property for 15-acre Thanet site (updated)

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Princeton Public Schools Board of Education members voted last week without any discussion to  terminate the school district’s option to buy the former SAVE animal shelter on Herrontown Road for $1.75 million. The moved was a last-minute addition to the meeting agenda.

At a special school board meeting tonight at 6:30 p.m. that was not televised, the board then unanimously voted to authorize the purchase of 100 -101 Thanet Road for $6.5 million. The board also voted to withdraw and resubmit the district’s application to the New Jersey Department of Education for the $130 million bond referendum to expand and renovate district schools.

“I want to thank everyone for being so flexible and keeping the future of the community in mind,” School Board Member Greg Stankiewicz said of the purchase. “This is really exciting.”

Located just off Terhune Road near Grover Avenue, the Thanet property is 15 acres and includes two buildings with 110,000 feet of office space. The property, currently assessed at $10.2 million, generates $233,910 in annual property tax revenue, according to property tax records.

The district would relocate administrative offices to one of the buildings and scrap plans to put administrative offices on the district property next to the John Witherspoon School. Offices for transportation and maintenance workers and school buses would also be located at the Thanet property. Athletic fields could also be located at the site in the future, school officials said.

Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane said he has been meeting with top town officials over the last year to discuss the district’s space needs. Town officials suggested the Thanet site, he said.

The final sale of the Thanet property is contingent on voters approving the bond referendum in October. An environmental study of the property would cost about $55,000 and would be paid for as part of the referendum, officials said. The district does not owe the owner of the 3-acre Herrontown property any money for canceling the sale, school officials said. District officials did not say how much the district spent having plans drawn up for the Herrontown property.

School officials must update the application to the state for the bond referendum to include new demographic projections and a revised building inventory. The revision of the application does not change the timeline for the referendum, school officials said.

The local planning board will review the plans for Thanet, officials said. School Board Member Dafna Kendal asked architect Scott Downie of Spiezle Architects, the district’s architecture firm,  why the plans for the Thanet property must be approved by the Princeton Planning Board. Under state law, public agencies normally are not required to receive approvals from planning boards. The zoning of the Thanet property will not be changed and no students will be on site. The property is already approved for office use and currently is being leased for offices.

Downie said the school board could raise the question and challenge the position that the planning board must review the site plan for Thanet. “We don’t anticipate fundamental changes to site,” Downie said. School officials seemed to think that given it was municipal officials who suggested the site to the district, there would not be a problem receiving approvals. One member of a municipal board told Planet Princeton some municipal officials are eager to see the district buy the property so that a developer can’t purchase it and turn it into a housing development.

Kendal asked how much the planning board site plan review would cost the district. Downie said it could cost up to $50,000. He said the planning board process is open ended but he did not think the costs would be significant. The space inside one building would be reconfigured, mechanical upgrades would be made, and the roof would be replaced. The second building would likely be demolished at some point, he said. The administration offices would be moved from Valley Road to the Thanet building so that the Valley Road building could be demolished to make way for a new intermediate school.

“There is case law that the school board is not subject to planning approval. We need to address this because this is the Princeton taxpayers’ money,” Kendal said.

In Murnick vs. Board of Education, the courts ruled that a local school board is bound only by the use restrictions of the zoning ordinance of the municipality in which the proposed school district building is to be located. It is not subject to local land use provisions that regulate such matters as height, setbacks, parking and site plan approval. The State Board of Education has the statutory responsibility to approve plans for the construction of new schools. The role of the local planning board is only advisory. School boards and other public entities often go before planning boards for courtesy reviews of plans. School officials are expect to go before the planning board for a courtesy review of the entire referendum plan in July.

But Downie said the district wants to “maintain a cooperative relationship with the township,”  adding that school representatives could approach municipal officials and have a discussion about the planning board issue.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

26 Comments

  1. Today’s Meet the Board was the 2nd of 4 scheduled for 2018. They are listed on the BoE home page (princetonk12.org/board), along with the board meetings, members’ names & emails, and links to budgets, documents, tedious videos of past meetings, and slides from the recent “Understanding Princeton School Finances” presentation at the library May 14th.

  2. Well, obviously, today’s event was not publicised at all. Interesting.

  3. The event was supposed to be at the library and now you say that it is at Valley Rd. I know it wasn’t listed on the library newsletter but PPS board member Beth Behrend replied my email and said it was at the library. Is PPS confusing people so they miss the event or is this simply a misunderstanding from your part?

  4. The BoE will hold an informal “Meet the Board” session tomorrow, June 7 from 8:30-10 am at Valley Road. It’s a good opportunity to learn more and ask questions.

  5. Plus the fact that they use PHS emotional students to write letters about the Cranbury students again, making this an issue about these kids and not about what really is, which is the contract and PPS board incapable of revising it.
    There is an event at the library on Saturday, which was not even listed on the library newsletter. I am not sure if it is going to be a monologue or a PR stunt by PPS. Unfortunately, I will be out of town and can’t attend; but this event should be one of many, where people could have a dialogue and ask questions and PPS board members answer those questions. Each of their meetings starts with the warning of no questions allowed and the timing of 2’ to 3’ only participation from the people. I understand that they don’t want to have meetings for hours and hours but when an issue is as important as this, when 130 millions are demanded to the tax payers, they should be there listening not only to those who agree with them but to those who disagree because our reasons are valid.

  6. Read the paper today. School Board members are being led by the agendas of those with conflicts of interest. Reasonable ideas & approaches have been ignored or suppressed. Critical meetings have been closed. It’s not right, but it’s happening. The majority of citizens can’t attend PRS meetings, so they can’t weigh in. Just praying that respected community members speak up now and clearly request the environmental & economic sustainability necessary to protect Princeton. Since the PRS Board speaks with threats & lawsuits, we need our finest to step up and protect Average Jane & Average Joe.

  7. Please research where the family friendly, affordable housing sites ( Princeton Village, Griggs Farm & the future sites planned by our town) are now & most will likely be located.

  8. Absolutely. And PHS even “with mice all over the place, roof falling on top of the students’ heads, etc” manages to send its graduates to top universities; so, obviously, it is not the buildings. My vote is stil “NO”.

  9. Wow!!! So with all what they take from taxes, they are not capable of providing the basics? More of a reason to vote “no” for this referendum and tell the kids to bring thermos with water. Obviously, external auditors are needed to check where the money goes. And I am not talking about fraudulent stuff, I am talking about stuff not well thought through and carried on from administration to administration without a thorough check. How could we trust them with close to $130 millions???

  10. It’s actually not a concession stand, its restrooms as well. Do you know that there is NO WATER SOURCE on the PHS field, the kids can’t get a drink of water, and if they have to go to the bathroom, they are out of luck when the building is closed. So if you call it what it really is, a bathroom and water fountains, with some room to sell concessions, it’s really not fancy at all.

  11. If Valley Road is used for the 5/6 school, many children, including the underserved, will be able to walk to school. Thanet will require all kids to be bused, and that’s not environmentally friendly, especially for the kids or economically sustainable.

  12. Yes, more trees…room for nature experiments, outdoor classes, a student garden, and, above all, environmental & economic sustainability in re-purposing Thanet. That’s the future young Princeton families want.

  13. Thank you for your kind words, ThirdRock. That’s a very interesting point about the Thanet site possibly being healthier. It certainly has more trees!

  14. Actually, this might be a positive move. It will be cheaper to put administration and maintenance at Thanet Road than the previous plan. The maintenance building was $6.6 million for 9,000 square feet and the admin wing on JW was $6.2 million for 14,000 square feet — for a total of $12.8 million and 21,000 square feet. So it’s half the cost and almost five times the space than was budgeted in the bond issue. It also has enough room for two or three playing fields, depending on how much parking is needed. It’s also much closer to the district’s two biggest schools.
    But other commenters have a good point: The Thanet Road site is also big enough to fit the new 5/6 school, which is budgeted at 85,000 square feet and $40 million.
    So the board really ought to be working, at this point, on figuring out how to keep admin and maintenance at Valley Road (and demolishing the oldest part for parking or another field or slightly more maintenance space for something like $6 million tops), while looking at the cost of transforming Thanet Road into a 5/6 school. Going from Class C office space to education space has got to be cheaper than a complete demo/asbestos abatement/reconstruction at Valley Road. In addition, if everyone is wedded to the giant stairs in the 5/6 design, just cover over the courtyard between the two Thanet buildings and make it the hub of the new school.
    It’s hard to let go of a beautiful plan but I will say again that it is a public building, funded by local taxpayers, and really should stick to the basics. No matter what, the kids still need to sit in classrooms for instruction.
    The board should remember that lots of people in this town are still not pleased by the luxury of the town hall, and most of the residents probably don’t know that the gorgeous travertine council meeting room recently had to have a complete audio overhaul (paid for by you-know-who) because the acoustics were so incredibly bad due to all the hard surfaces and poorly designed air handling.
    I also should add that it’s disturbing that the referendum is still a moving target this close to the vote on Oct. 2.

  15. The concession stand, the artificial turf fields, kind of fancy in my opinion. The new building is needed but not essential. Pork. They need to back up, breath, and keep working, no need to rush but they need to listen to ideas, because sometimes when the ideas don’t come from them, they do not welcome them and that is called ego.

  16. Just because you disagree with the plan, everyone on the PPS board should quit? What is being proposed that is “fancy”?

  17. This town is in the hands of Princeton University and PPS and the municipality dances according to the drumbeat of either one, siding or recusing, one never knows. The « clique » and their egos are ruining this town, I have no faith on them. How long until these PPS board members leave? Except for Ms Tucker Ponder who voted « no » all of them should quit.
    By the way, I am not against PU or public schools. I am against unnecessary fancy stuff, I am against rushing when there is no need, I am against lousy work and « yes » people. I am for fixing what is broken and for compromise based on the constituents ‘ needs and feedback. Being elected doesn’t take away the fact council and PPS board members need to listen to those who elect them.

  18. Perhaps PRS could sell Valley Road, buy Thanet for student use, & place admin staff offices in schools district-wide to keep them in touch with reality. This would work well for our kids. PRS Board members have been listening spin & pitches, from admins & consultants with conflicts of interest. It might be wiser for our elected Board members to take a breather, think of Princeton as a community of neighbors, keep our wonderfully diverse town inclusive via reasonable tax assessment, and plan sustainably. Remember the excesses in our recent PHS renovation ( it included cost overruns, funding a lawsuit, a countersuit from the Builder, that Builder’s win, & taxpayers funding a large settlement)? Valley Road will be a money pit. Thanet will need stair tower additions and floor plan changes, but is up to date.

  19. Why should the school board purchase Thanet at all? They already own the Valley Road property. They can build a school there. Oh wait, the mayor and council want to get their hands on Valley Road to build their property empire. Gee maybe that’s why they really pressured the school board to buy Thanet.

  20. You’re right about the solution. We won’t be voting in favor of any referendum that puts sustainability last. Data proves that buildings aren’t the influencing factor in school systems that produce great student outcomes.

  21. The Thanet site is better suited for a Grade 5/6 school. PRS’s proposal, to use Thanet for admin, maintenance, & buses instead, is proof that our District leadership doesn’t put students first. Poor use of PRS’s still active 90 million dollar facilities bond created a state of entropy in PRS. How tragic to see PRS Admins’ excesses and disregard for funds & resources continue. PRS Board Members, please stop planned entropy. Purchase Thanet for student use if you must or not at all. Princeton’s kids deserve a just, healthy, sustainable school district, created by leaders without conflicts of interest.

  22. Why buy something for $1.75 million when you can spend $6.5 millions? That is the basic operating principle of the school board under its current leadership. This is not the right leadership to plan school expansion.

    When Patrick Sullivan says “Scarsdale, New York spends probably twice as much as we do on education. It’s a different kind of community obviously, but I think we are all working towards that goal” – it is clear he is not representing the views of most in the community who are fighting very hard to preserve the character of Princeton.

    The only solution is to vote against the referendum on October 2nd, elect different school board members and then take a new look at what is really needed for our schools.

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