Planet Princeton

Princeton School Board approves controversial 10-year deal with Cranbury

Cranbury residents will be able to send their kids to Princeton High School until at least 2030.

The school board for the Princeton Public Schools voted on Tuesday night to approve a controversial new 10-year sending and receiving agreement with Cranbury despite the fact that many Princeton residents still have questions about the deal and some had asked the board to delay making a decision.

At about 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday night, the board voted to approve the contract. Board member Debbie Bronfeld voted no because she wanted the term of the contract to be reduced to five years. Board member Dafna Kendal abstained, saying she still had questions about some items in the contract. Board member Michele Tuck-Ponder also abstained. She had asked the board to hold off on approving the contract. She made a motion to table the contract vote but didn’t receive a second.

“I just received the contract yesterday and there was no sufficient time to review it. I don’t know anyone who signs a contract without reading it,” she said. “With all respect to Cranbury, if we don’t sign this or we don’t approve this contract this evening, nothing changes. Cranbury student will continue to be enrolled at Princeton High School. This will give us time to discuss it going forward and then we can decide whether to terminate or extend.”

Tuck-Ponder also said the discussion about the agreement has muddied the waters regarding the $129 million bond referendum. “It is a big issue for the community from a financial standpoint,” she said. “We need to be clear and discuss it in a transparent fashion and answer the questions of our constituents.”

Kendal, who is a lawyer, said she still had some concerns about some details of the contract and didn’t feel comfortable approving it yet.  “I still have material questions and because of that I can’t in good conscience sign on tonight,” she said. 

Evelyn Spann, the representative for Cranbury on the board, said the details Kendal had concerns about regarding special education reimbursement could be worked out in an addendum to the agreement at a later date. “We can work on an addendum of the language within the agreement over the summer. It’s language we’ve worked on in the past that doesn’t affect the agreement. What it affects are some ways in which we negotiate special needs contracts,” Spann said. “An addendum is always an appropriate option.”

Bronfeld said it would be wiser to approve a five-year deal. Prior to the last contract, which was for 10 years, the term of the sending and receiving contract with Cranbury was for five years.

“I’m not happy with 10 years. I don’t think a lot of us will be here in 10 more years,” she said. “I know in the past the contract was five years. We don’t know what our affordable housing situation will be yet. Ten years is too much for me right now with everything else that is going on.”

“In five years we would be in the midst of construction,” Board Member Greg Stankiewicz said. “We need to reduce risk and button down wherever possible and make sure every contract is signed.  The Cranbury Princeton relationship is six percent of our revenues. It would be devastating if we didn’t have the certainty for rating agencies that would look at the risk, It’s also worth doing in order to try to focus on the main issue we are facing — the overcrowding students are facing at every school building.” 

Bronfeld pointed out that because the current agreement runs until 2020, a five-year deal would end in 2025. School construction and renovations would be completed by then.

School Board Vice President Betsy Baglio said delaying a vote would cause uncertainty and anxiety. “We have been elected to make the best decision in the interest of taxpayers. I’m concerned a delay would go on indefinitely,” she said. 

Tuck-Ponder suggested that the board make a decision on the contract within the next six months. Stankiewicz said the New Jersey School Boards Association recommends that boards honor the provisions of the sending and receiving agreements and make decisions two years in advance of the contract expiring. Tuck-Ponder was not swayed. 

“With all due respect to the NJSBA, the people who pull the lever next to my name are not the NJSBA,” Tuck-Ponder said. “My decisions have to be made based on the information I am presented with. It’s my job to make informed, knowledgable, responsible decisions. That is what I was elected to do.”

Board Member Beth Behrend said the Cranbury contract is distracting the board from working on the referendum and enrollment issues. “I don’t know what more we can do to be transparent on this,” she said of the Cranbury arrangement. She said special provisions in the agreement still need to be worked out but that she as a lawyer would be comfortable extending the agreement. She and Kendal disagreed on whether some items in a draft document the board received on Thursday were administrative details or material provisions. 

School Board President Patrick Sullivan questioned what new information the board could possibly received to change board members’ minds about the contract. “I don’t see why waiting matters,” he said. “I don’t even want to get back to the referendum. It’s something we have to do or don’t do. It’s a business decision. I want to  get back to why kids are doing so much homework, about being treated in an equitable manner, those kinds of things are the things I want to really focus on, but these other issues keep coming up. It’s frustrating to me. It should be about the kids…It’s important for me to clear decks, move on, and focus on the referendum. It’s an opportunity to do it tonight. This has been done in a respectful, open and transparent way.” 

Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane said the loss of tuition from Cranbury would hurt the district. “A delay causes uncertainty for the Cranbury board, for Cranbury families, and for Cranbury kids, who are our kids. It also causes uncertainty for our staff. They know what it was like when we had a shortfall of $2 million in 2010. And as was said before, uncertainty is not good for financial institutions looking to lend us money for our $129 million bond referendum. For me, the uncertainty doesn’t make sense. It’s an economic loss for the district and it is irresponsible.” 

Board member Bill Hare said if the district goes to court it seems like it would be a “sure shot” loss. “I’m not a big fan of wasteful litigation expenses for lawyers. Finances aside, we can’t really terminate the agreement looking at case law. We won’t negotiate something better in the next few weeks. Let’s just bite the bullet and move on.”

Board member Jessica Deutsch said the students and taxpayers are better off with the agreement. 

Spann, the Cranbury representative, said the board needed to make a decision to serve the children. “I have faith in the professionals who supported this agreement from the beginning,” she said. “Uncertainty is never a good thing.” 

During public comment, three students read a letter in support of the Cranbury agreement that they said had been signed by 145 students and sent to a local paper by a school board member’s daughter the previous week. “Cranbury is an important, vital part of the community at Princeton High. There are our peers and friends, the people with whom we eat lunch and do activities. We are lucky to have them at PHS and in our lives,” read one student. “The sending and receiving relationship has created a joint community between Princeton and Cranbury. It is a difficult time, but it is not acceptable to blame students and send message that they don’t belong.”

Several residents asked the board to hold off on a making a decision. Some requested a shorter contract for two or five years so that officials can see what happens in terms of affordable housing, enrollment, and the vote on the bond referendum. Others pointed out that current Cranbury students would not be affected by the changes.

“All the Cranbury kids are our kids when they are in the high school,” said Karen O’Connell, who pointed out that the younger Cranbury kids are not Princeton’s kids right now. “We need to deal with the kids here. We should make a change in the wording to two years so we can look at this agreement again.”

“This is a business-level decision,” said resident Shenwei Zhao, who urged the board to make the term of any new contract as short as possible.

“The debate is not about you or your friends,” he told students, explaining that the termination of the sending and receiving relationship does not affect students who already go to Princeton High School. “That is misleading. No one can lose a friend who does not exist yet.”

Resident Cara Marcano said current students would not be asked to leave because Cranbury students would be phased out. “When children speak we should cite facts,” she said. Marcano also called out the spouse of a school board member in the audience for smirking and snickering when residents who opposed the renewal of the ten-year agreement spoke during public comment. 

Resident Diana Cano said it would be irresponsible to approve a new agreement before the referendum is voted on. If the referendum does not pass, the board would not be able to provide facilities for the Cranbury students because the high school is already at capacity.

Resident Joel Schwartz said the process for reviewing the agreement and presenting it to the public has been “deeply troubling.” He asked the board for more time and information and said the decision on Cranbury could be delayed.

“Your job as a board is to represent your client — the students and residents of Princeton — to get the best deal,” he said. “The public record on the subject of the sending and receiving agreement — how many people perceived the record as being clear? You have the ability to say you need more time.”

Schwartz asked how much of the Cranbury tuition is actually net revenue. “Please tell us. Don’t guess and imply it is an actual verifiable analysis…Tell us what PPS actually does with all the net revenue from Cranbury. You are operating a $90 million business and you don’t know the operating cost of your largest division..If you do know it, not sharing it with your shareholders is inappropriate.”

Resident Kip Cherry said people are struggling to pay their taxes and remain in Princeton. Officials talk about diversity, but the town is losing its diversity as middle-income residents and seniors leave. “This is a ten-year agreement with a thirty-year mortgage,” she said. 

Resident Daniel Dart said Cranbury contributes to the overcrowding at the high school. The proposed bond referendum would cost more than $31,000 on a per pupil basis, a much higher number than other proposed bond referendums on neighboring communities.

“I guess I could lower my taxes by moving to Cranbury,” Dart said. “I could move there and still send my daughter to the Princeton Public Schools.

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.

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