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Princeton School Board to vote on new Cranbury sending and receiving agreement tonight

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Extend the agreement for another decade
  3. 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.”

Please share your thoughts on this story.

18 comments
  • I used to serve on operating committee that approved Capex spending at a tech company and we always reviewed proposals relative to what it can achieve and what market competitors are spending as well. So yes, this may achieve a lot which I do not dispute, but what I have a problem with is why 3x to achieve? If a group came in front of us with this proposal and comparison we would have sent them back to the drawing board. So why shouldn’t the taxpayers ask the same?

  • Princeton will do alot for that amount. Renovation and expansion of the high school, a new 5-6 middle school, and new administrative offices. How that compares with the new facilities in the other towns mentioned I don’t know.

  • Assuming Daniel Dart’s numbers are correct, Princeton is spending $130mm at $31K per student and West Windsor/Plainsboro a very competitive school district is spending $115mm at $11K per student then how can we as taxpayers be asked to vote yes? That’s almost 3X the cost’s and yet it’s hard to justify that Princeton School district is 3X better in any metrics that the PPS school board can present to the taxpayers. If they can I would like to see it before I vote to approve.

  • Here is one issue with the analysis presented by the Board this past Saturday that was brought up by a person in an email group that is having a conversation about this. “Below are two slides from yesterday’s presentation – Slide 16 and Slide 20. In the first slide, it assumes average teacher salary/benefits of $100K. In the second slide, it says to cope with the loss of $2M state aid in 2010, PPS lost 45 full-time teachers, 3 guidance staff, 4 psychologist and speech staff, 9 secretarial/other staff, 3 custodians and 25 other positions lost or had salaries adjusted.

    Two issues with these stats:
    According to CAFR, total number full-time equivalent employees were 603, 643 and 630 for 2009, 2010 and 2011. While instruction-related staff decreased 31 from 2010 to 2011, supporting services staff increased 18. The total loss of 13 FTE employees in 2011 occurred after a substantial increase of 40 in the prior year.
    Adjusting for inflation, assuming average salary/benefit was $60,000/yr in 2006, the loss of 45 full-time teachers alone would have resulted in a reduction in expense by $2.7M, well over the $2M loss in state aid.”

  • Yes, PPS wants more dollars, including in their own paychecks… and less opportunities for the students and families of Princeton. Out of our wallets, into District staff’s is how the money will flow. .. while opportunities for Princeton kids leave town.

  • Present Cranbury kids have security and there is a phase out period. It is time to begin that phase out period. That sentiment contains nothing against present Cranbury attending PHS who will not be affected, it is for Princeton kids.

  • This Board isn’t listening to Princeton citizens… but our household sends BIG Thanks to Barbara Byrne, Phyllis Marchand and other respected community leaders who are courageously speaking up for students, Jane & Joe Taxpayer, sharing true wisdom, and trying. This Board isn’t placing Princeton kids, families, & citizens needs first. What’s an analogy for a Princeton student that doesn’t get a place on the athletic team, or a part in the school play, or a well deserved award, or the college acceptance they wanted because their spot, or part, or award, or offer is given to a Cranbury kid instead?… If PHS is a “rental property”,then some gifted Princeton kids are left homeless every year… If PHS is an “Airline”, some Princeton kids are being placed in an overhead bin. This Board didn’t hesitate to sue the established 20 year old Charter School in my hometown, using many tax dollars to demonize the Princeton school chosen by our sweet taxpaying Princeton neighbors. Our kids are PPS students, but when this Board approves the contract tonight instead of rightly allowing that contract come to its natural end, our rapidly dwindling respect for PPS management will be gone. So, are our votes for anything unsustainable they propose in the future, because they don’t care about us & are fracturing our town. They have forgotten they are stewards of a school for the people of Princeton.

  • The school board has been extremely manipulative in trying to convince the community. For example, Beth Behrend says “Their students are our students. We are all one community. They are all our children,” – this is simply not true. The current students from Cranbury will be able to finish and in the future one would hardly run into kids living two towns away. So having some high school students stand up at a meeting and argue for “our friends” is silly.
    Equally silly is when they say that neighboring communities have bond referendums with similar amounts while neglecting to mention that they have 3-4 times as many students. Such superficial manipulative campaign is insulting to Princeton residents.

  • The current send-receive agreement will last until 2020. The one the Board plans to sign will take us to 2030.

  • My guess is that we wouldn’t be considering a $56M PHS renovation and expansion bond issue if we had 250 fewer students in the high school.

  • My thanks to the Finance Committee for laying out the impact of the send-receive agreement in increasing detail at various meetings at Valley Road and the library, and especially for working for many hours with skeptics to validate and refine the analysis.

    It’s not obvious at first glance, but the Cranbury SRA does benefit Princeton taxpayers, bringing in ~$2.75mn in “profit” — incremental revenue less incremental expense.

    The taxpayer benefit clearly holds even after including the debt service for extra expansion of PHS to include Cranbury students. This is true mainly because the annual debt service levy due to that extra expansion just isn’t that big relative to the “profit” on Cranbury students. The tax levy for PHS expansion, renovation and upgrades is ~$2.6mn/year, of which only ~10% is Cranbury-related, or $260,000/year, still leaving ~$2.5mn “profit”.

    Since the benefit to Princeton taxpayers is clear and large, and will stay so under any reasonable changes to demographic or financial assumptions, there is no need to get into how or whether we could end this advantageous arrangement.

    P.S. Cranbury pays less to Princeton because it pays some expenses itself, e.g., transportation and certain special needs expenses; after adjusting for that the tuition is fair and unsubsidized (and quite profitable).

  • A two year extension sounds like a very reasonable suggestion to allow more discussion of the issues and to still give Cranbury some security about the future.

  • There is no need or benefit to Princeton to rush into a 10 year agreement when a two year agreement can be arranged. This will allow Princeton time to work with the State DOE to arrange for Cranbury to share the capital bond costs that will be assessed only to Princeton taxpayers under the proposed 10 year arrangement, where Cranbury gets a ‘free ride’ on the bond costs that we absorb. We need time and transparency to assess this arrangement.

  • One problem is that the Cranbury payment to the Princeton Public Schools and the PPS payment to the Charter School come into and out of operating funds. The School Board is concerned about a decrease in the operating budget.

    The tax levy that funds operating expenses is capped at a 2% yearly increase, which barely covers inflation (particularly the quickly rising cost of health benefits). As the number of students increase, this means that there is less and less money (after inflation) per student in the operating budget. For example to pay for needed teachers and classes for the greater number of students. Only if student enrollment goes up quickly can the Board apply for a waiver to increase the school tax levy over 2%. So the students in our schools have faced larger class sizes and the inability to get some of the classes they want and need for college as our student population has gone up.

  • Clearly, they are going to approve this unfair agreement no matter
    what it costs. They’ve utterly failed to provide an intelligent,
    10-year, cost-benefit analysis and assume Princeton residents will accept picking up
    the bill for enlarging the schools. I will campaign vigorously against
    that bond issue. I find it arrogant of the school board to continue
    taking students from outside and increase our tax load to pay for it.
    If you look ahead 10 years, I’m pretty sure it would cost residents much
    less to stop taking students from outside the
    municipality. Furthermost, the schools are already unpleasantly big, and bigger will not be better.
    Teacher employment wouldn’t even go down in the area but would instead
    move to neighboring schools. Yes, there would be an initial increase in
    costs, but over 10 years, I believe that refusing the agreement would be a
    win for Princeton. But we’ll never know for sure because they are going
    to ram it down our throats anyway. Please fight it.

  • Besides the financial impact of this agreement, which is a net loss for Princeton no matter how the board spins the numbers, not many people talk about the issues of diversity and the environmental impact of busing the students from another county. Cranbury is a wealthier and less diverse community than Princeton. Bringing these students to Princeton schools at a net loss works directly against the publicly stated goals of the board. If we are going to “rent” space in our schools, we should at least provide educational opportunities for less privileged students.

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