Princeton Public Schools board likely to split referendum into two questions and move vote to November

The school board for the Princeton Public Schools is weighing whether to split the proposed $130 million bond referendum into two questions. The referendum could also be pushed back from October to November. The board will vote on the proposal at the regular school board meeting next week.

A new school for grades five and six, various improvements at the district’s four elementary schools, some improvements at the high school, a new administration building, security upgrades, and a turf athletic field would be included in the first question for $80.8 million. The high school improvements include a partial second floor for athletics facilities and a new dining area.

Some of the improvements at Princeton High School would be included in a smaller second question for $48.7 million. Those improvements include a “flexible learning zone” and collaboration spaces for students.

The first, larger bond referendum question must pass in order for the second question to be able to pass, school officials said.

“We do need all of the improvements for our kids, but we are also listening to a community that is concerned about the tax impact,”  Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane told a standing-room-only crowd at a public school board meeting Tuesday night when explaining the recommendation that the referendum be split into two questions.

“If the referendum is voted down, we are left with a very pressing need at the middle school. We have a critical need to build a five-six school and free up space at the middle school and elementary schools,” Cochrane said. “The high school expansion is also needed. We are 200 students over capacity now. That number will stay flat over next four years, and then go up steeply. If the second question does not pass, we can regroup, refine our proposal, and come back to the community with some of the items in the second question.”

Splitting the referendum into two questions was proposed by the school board’s facilities committee. The committee also weighed postponing some projects for a few years, but decided instead to split the projects into two questions so that the school board does not have to deal with another referendum again in just a few years.

Cochrane said the 15-acre Thanet property that will house the administration could also be used to expand the district’s pre-school program. A few decades down the road it could also be used as the site for another school, he said.

Taxpayers are currently paying for debt service for previous bond referendums. That debt service will be paid off three years after the debt service for the proposed bond referendums would kick in. If the first question passes, taxpayers would pay more for debt service the first three years of the 30-year loan. Officials said the fourth year, taxpayers would see a reduction in the debt service portion of the school tax bill. A representative for the district said a homeowner with a property assessed at the town average of $837,000 would pay $169 less per year average in taxes for school debt service after the first three years. If the second question is approved by voters, taxpayers would pay more for debt service for about 18 years.

“We owe it to our taxpayers to explain the impact of waiting (on the second question),” said school board Evelyn Spann, who lives in Cranbury. The sending district pays tuition to Princeton to send its students to Princeton High School.

School Board President Patrick Sullivan questioned what officials should tell parents of seventh and eighth graders who will be attending the high school if the second question does not pass.

“If the first question passes, I could sleep at night with the changes that are included for the high school,” School Board Member Dafna Kendal said. “We can say we compromised. My son will be a student at the high school and I am comfortable with it.”

An architect for the school district said that because the state must review the high school question changes, the referendum should be postponed until November.

“I want to put a plug in for the expansion renovation of the high school,” resident Jennifer Jang said. “I think that PHS very badly needs to be expanded and renovated. This topic has been debated for five decades. For some people, this may prove we can keep going forever in this building. Others would say ‘why is this still an issue’…There are many pieces of this building that are not optimal…We want to not only maintain, but we also want to do better.”

Resident Peter Madison, an expert in school construction, asked why the proposed loan term is for 30 years. “Schools are generally over-designed by architects. They aren’t paying the expense. We are. The architect’s fee is often related to the costs. Design follows the architect’s presumptions. Architects are not educators,” Madison said. “I will vote for $60 million for something that is reasonable. There is not enough planning, and not enough thought, especially considering that your bond counsel said other districts are voting for proposals under $40 million. Something is wrong here.”

Resident Susanna Monseau urged the board members to remember that the board represents the interests of all members of the community, and that board members should be asking critical questions. “We’ve heard nothing about the ongoing costs of the facilities expansion and the new 5-6 school,” Monseau said. She also asked whether the proposed layout of the high school is beneficial for students. Cochrane said the cost for about 22 new staff members at the 5-6 school would be about $1.5 million per year. The energy costs have not been calculated, he said. The district would have to budget for additional staff within the two percent tax cap. There is no cap waiver for opening anew school, he said

Some residents urged the board to keep one question for $130 million.

“I am deeply worried about splitting this and giving the town the impression we can push this down the road when we can not,” resident Wiebke Martens said.