The Princeton School Board is slated to vote tonight, June 12, on a new contract that would allow Cranbury students to attend Princeton High School for another decade. The public portion of the school board meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. at the Valley Road administration building.
Ten years is the maximum length of time that is allowed for such a contract under state law. School boards can also approve such contracts for shorter periods, for example a year or five years. The law does not set a minimum term for such agreements. The proposed new agreement for Cranbury would lock the district into receiving high school students from the Middlesex County community until 2030.
School officials have framed the choices as:
- Do nothing and the current agreement expires in 2020. The relationship would continue under the terms of the existing contract until a new agreement is reached, which is not recommended.
- Extend the agreement for another decade
- Take action to terminate the agreement. Conduct a feasibility study. Find a new school that would accept Cranbury students. (The burden is actually not on receiving districts to find another district, it is on the sending district.) Receive approval from the State Commissioner of Education. Potentially face appeals and a legal challenge from Cranbury.
For the 2016-17 academic year, Cranbury paid $17,439 per pupil to send about 280 students to Princeton High school. The budgeted per pupil spending for Princeton for 2016-17, according to the state’s 2017 Taxpayer’s Guide to Education Spending, was $19,964. The per pupil actual spending for that period will be included in the 2018 taxpayers’ guide, which has not been released yet. The actual per pupil cost for 2015-16 was $18,844, an increase of $557 per pupil over 2014-15, according to the guide. District officials say Cranbury does not pay too little and tuition is based on a state formula.
The $4.8 million in annual revenue from Cranbury makes up about six percent of the district’s budget, school officials said at a forum on the issue at the Princeton Public Library on Saturday that was attended by about 70 people. School board members Greg Stankiewicz and Beth Behrend presented the reasons they support renewing the agreement.
“We could try to terminate the agreement, but then we could be arguing and appealing. It would take a lot of resources. We would need to do a feasibility study. It would be very uncertain and our counsel tells us it is highly unlikely we would be successful,” Behrend said, adding that the district should not let the Cranbury issue take up so much time and instead school officials should get back to focusing on the district’s mission. “Their students are our students. We are all one community. They are all our children,” she said.
In October, voters will be asked to approve a $129 million bond referendum to renovate the high school, build a new school for grades 5-6, purchase a new site for the administration located on a 15-acre property, and make improvements to all district schools. If the referendum passes, Cranbury tuition will increase to include a proportionate share of the costs of the interest on the debt for the high school renovation costs. But Princeton can’t charge Cranbury for a proportionate share of principal construction costs. The high school renovation is estimated to cost $56.6 million.
Stankiewicz and Behrend said the district estimates that the marginal cost to educate Cranbury students is 30 percent. They said the district would only save $1,177,133 in staffing costs if Cranbury leaves. The district would lose $ 2,746,643 in revenue. The state caps tax levy increases at 2 percent.The district could not cover the lost revenue shortfall, because enrollment and fixed costs like salaries and health benefits are rising at higher rates, Behrend said.
Behrend said Princeton would need to find additional sources of revenue “from a new sending-receiving relationship with another town or “private philanthropy perhaps?” to make up for the lost revenue. Making the high school renovation project smaller and thereby reducing the amount of money the district borrows would not make up for the operating budget shortfall, Behrend said. She then detailed cuts made to the school budget in 2010 and implied that the district could end up laying off 30 to 40 teachers and to slashing programs without the tuition revenue. She said the district’s operating budget and capital budget are in separate “buckets” and can’t be mixed.
All of the district schools are at or over capacity, and ending the agreement with Cranbury would not solve the problem of overcrowding at the high school, Stankiewicz said, defending Cranbury for not paying for capital costs under state law. “Cranbury is almost like a renter and we are almost like a homeowner,” he said. “The school is an asset for the community. If the community decides to fix it up and make it an even better asset , it increases the value of the home.”
A few residents who were members of the municipality’s citizens finance advisory board said they reviewed the sending and receiving agreement and it is still a good deal for Princeton because of the marginal costs. They enthusiastically endorsed it on Saturday.
“The Cranbury relationship is financially positive now and will be under any set of realistic circumstances. It will be positive but by a smaller amount because we are paying the principal for the renovations,” said resident Brian McDonald. He compared accepting Cranbury students to selling empty seats on an airplane, though he didn’t discuss the pros and cons when the plane is overcrowded or when a bigger plane must me purchased. “Passengers on the same flight pay very different prices,” he said. “We’re all envious of the person who got the cheap ticket…Add 20 students and the budget doesn’t change at all, but the average cost goes down.”
Several residents in the audience were not as convinced. They asked for more time to review the information that was presented on Saturday and said the school board should hold off voting on a new agreement Tuesday night.
“The public needs the time to digest the information and come back with additional questions,” said resident Joel Schwartz. “I thought we would be discussing bottom-line dollars today. So many people are not sure how to frame this, and they are reasonably concerned.”
Schwartz said he disagreed with a lot of the presentation. For example, he said school officials are making assumptions about demographics. “You made the case that the agreement should be continued because it is a great deal for Princeton. I thought I would hear more about how the numbers work, but I haven’t heard anything that has not been said before.”
The number of Cranbury students is declining. Schwartz reviewed data from a demographer for Cranbury and said it shows that the district’s enrollment is falling off a cliff. The number of students from Cranbury could shrink to about 160-170 students at some point if the demographer is on target. ‘That’s not what was talked about today,” he said. “We heard budget data based on 280 to 220 students.”
He urged the board to postpone a decision given that nothing changes if it is not renewed. The agreement is carries over until a new one is approved. ‘I’m concerned about the whole premise of this morning’s conversation, which is based on information that is not there…There has been a great deal of conversation about how many dollars fit on the head of a pin, bu we can’t seem to decide what the size of the pin is.”
Schwartz said the forum was billed a a conversation. “Actually it was a one-sided transmission of information,” he said. “The people who presented worked hard, but opposing points of view are limited to a few minutes of time. This should be a wide-ranging conversation where different sides are allowed an equal opportunity to present facts, and what the facts might lead to, so we can analyze the consequences of the loss.”
The public has been given four contradictory presentations about Princeton’s demographics, he said. “It’s not clear where we really are. We are making decisions based on projections. Four separate reports give four different snapshots. All those projections contradict each other. It’s impossible to know where the truth lies.”
Resident Ralph Perry, who has lived in Princeton more than a half century, said he is concerned about the town. The concerns of Princeton residents should be a higher priority than neighbors in Cranbury. “Seniors and retirees can no longer afford to live here because of the high property taxes. Many seniors are packing up and leaving town,” Perry said. “Cranbury is our friend, of course they are our neighbors, but if I have to pack up and leave town I will lose friends I’ve made over the last 50 years.”
One resident asked whether the contract could be extended a year or two instead of ten but an answer was not given as to why the board is proposing another 10-year term. Another resident asked whether Cranbury could make a voluntary payment for the high school renovation. That question was also not answered.
Another resident who is a former teacher said she thought the meeting was one sided. “Besides focusing on money we should focus on the pedagogical changes implied by the construction ,” she said.
School officials said a town hall meeting about the referendum will be held at 7 p.m. June 18 at the John Witherspoon Middle School. Residents will be able to ask more questions about the referendum then.
Resident Peter Kramer said the “big elephant in the room” was not the Cranbury agreement. “The issue really is the significant tax increase associated with the bond referendum. If we are talking about a business where the next passenger on the plane generates marginal revenue, look at the marginal cost…The issue is the capital, so the question is, how can we get Cranbury to contribute as a partner to the capital budget? Then we will solve our political problem of the sending and receiving agreement. ”
Resident Barbara Byrne, who recently retired as vice chair of the banking division at Barclays Bank, said she does not think the Cranbury agreement is the issue.”We do need to be able to negotiate with Cranbury. I don’t care what state law said. The law needs to be changed then. We all know you can negotiate.”
Byrne questioned why the referendum is set for Oct. 2. “That is a suppression of the vote. You know people won’t turn out. Change it to November. It’s your choice.”
She added that talking about the legal cap and the operating budget versus the capital budget is a device. “All dollars are fungible,” she said. She also said there is no difference between a triple, double or single bond rating when it comes to the costs of the referendum. “We need to ask ourselves what kind of community we want,” she said, adding that it is shocking that district officials have not yet factored in how much the operating costs will be for the renovated and expanded facilities if the referendum passes. “What costs are essential to operating the new facilities?” she said. “You are not factoring in the operating costs. No corporation in America would do that.”
Former council member Jo Butler said the numbers presented Saturday were “vastly different” than numbers given at an April 24 presentation. “A few days isn’t a lot of time to digest it. This is a nice group gathered here today but it is not close to being representative of the community. I do feel Tuesday is too early for a vote on this. Everyone should have a chance to take a look at the numbers. Colleges and universities are very worried about enrollment. Millennials are not having kids at the same rate. There are concerns about demographic numbers being so robust.”