On Nov.6, voters in Princeton will be asked two referendum questions to borrow money to fund improvements to the public schools.
The first question will ask voters to consider spending $83 million for school improvements. The second question will ask voters to consider spending another $47 million for improvements. The total amount for the two questions is about $130 million.
Question one includes improvements at all four elementary schools and the middle school, a new school for grades 5-6 at Valley Road, the new Thanet administration building, and security upgrades. It also includes numerous improvements at the high school, including the addition of at least four classrooms, athletics spaces on the second floor, a commons, collaborative teaching spaces, guidance renovations, and water mitigation costs. Question two includes more extensive renovations to the high school.
On Tuesday night after 11 p.m., the school board voted to split the bond referendum into two questions. The item was part of the consent agenda. It was one of 25 “business operations” consent agenda items and was listed as “project submission to NJDOE for review and approval.” Normally, consent agenda is for items that are routine in nature. Many people in the audience looked at the agenda and thought the bond referendum was not being voted on because of the vague way it was listed.
“I’m confused. I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve been sitting here for more than three hours waiting to say something, but is there a vote on the referendum questions tonight?” resident Ralph Perry asked. He was told there was broad consensus among board members to split the referendum into two questions.
Several people who wanted to speak about the referendum gave up and left because the meeting lasted more than three hours before the public comment portion began. Officials spent most of the meeting reviewing a report on equity in the schools (editor’s note: we will be posting a separate story about that report).
School Board President Patrick Sullivan, responding to a resident’s comment about the costs of the referendum, said the board has done a good job of minimizing the costs included in the two questions.
“You don’t get anything for free in this world,” Sullivan said. “Speaking for myself, $200 in costs (per year) for my two children is just not a lot of money.”
Superintendent Steve Cochrane said for year one of the bond repayment, residents would only pay $34.50 for every $100,000 of assessed property value. Many families have homes below the assessed average and their payments for the bond referendum would be lower than the figures presented for the average, he said.
If the first question is approved by voters, school officials said the projected tax increase for debt service for the first four years of the bond repayment on a home assessed at the town average of $837,000 is:
Year one – $287.55
Year two – $345.20
Year three – $505.20
Year four – debt service reduced by $31 as current bonds for previous referendum are paid off.
If both questions are approved by voters, the projected tax increase for debt service for the first four years of the bond repayment on a home assessed at the town average of $837,000 is:
Year one – $289.30
Year two -$372.26
Year three – $749.44
Year four – $239.74
School board members Debbie Bronfeld and Bill Hare expressed concerns about purchasing the Thanet property. Bronfeld wanted to know what the timeline is for moving in to the building. “I thought we could walk into the building after we buy it. What is the lead time if the referendum passes on Nov. 6?” she asked. “When would staff be able to move in?”
The architect for the district said renovations and upgrades need to be made to the Thanet property, but he did not have a detailed schedule yet. It could be three to five months after the referendum passes and bids go out for the project, he said. Construction of the new school at Valley Road would go out to bid in the spring of 2019, and the school would open in the fall of 2020, he said. School Board member Greg Stankiewicz said the Thanet property could house other programs like a new pre-school. He added that early childhood education is key to closing the achievement gap.
School Board Member Dafna Kendal said the board does not have many options. Even if the administration were located elsewhere, the district would still need space for transportation offices and buses. Thanet is a less expensive option than other options, even though it is not perfect, she said.
Prior to the vote, several residents asked questions about the referendum. Resident Brian McDonald urged the board to break the referendum into two questions. “In this time of economic uncertainty, one options has a smaller financial impact and gives the community the ability to address the most urgent priorities while approving or deferring additional work,” he said, adding that he supports the purchase of the Thanet property as an asset that can be used in the coming decades.
Resident Kip Cherry said the community has not had enough input about the plans. “You’re not changing the total. It is still the same,” she said, also questioning the design process and timeline.
School officials said most design work is done after a referendum is passed, unlike the process for a corporation, where engineers present full designs at the beginning of the process. The school district is seeking funding approvals and the bulk of the design process will take place after the funding is approved, officials said.
Kendal said the board has listened to community feedback. “The changes we are showing you today are in response to the community,” she said. “To say we have not been collaborative is not fair.”
Sullivan said many people have been involved in the process. “You’ve been at every meeting for the past year,” he told Cherry.
Resident Joel Schwartz said the board missed Cherry’s point. The architect was hired in December, and in February a design concept had already been chosen, he said. Schwartz asked the board for more background on how decisions were made. For example, he wanted to know how the board determined it was better to build a new school for grades five and six and buy Thanet, rather than expanding each of the elementary schools. He also asked why the district is buying Thanet when it would be much cheaper to rent the office space.
School officials said a new school for grades five and six not only solves overcrowding issues at the elementary schools, but also solves problems at the middle school by moving grade six to the new school. “It creates space at the middle school. We really couldn’t expand and add classrooms there and we would have to expand the core areas as well,” Cochrane said. ‘It really did make economic sense to have a single five and six school.”
Schwartz said the public only hears how the board made decisions in two or three-minute sound bites. “It would be good if you could share the process you went through in detail in terms of both facilities management and dollars,” he said.
Resident Charlotte O’Connell expressed concerns about the operating budget for the new school. Cochrane said the operating budget would be about $1.5 million a year. O’Connell believes it will be higher. Cochrane said about 22 new staff members would need to be hired for the school. He also said the district would still have to keep tax levy increases within the state cap even if a new school is built. The district could receive a waiver to raise taxes more than the two percent cap for enrollment increases, he said.
“We’ve been working on this a lot of time. There also has to be a little bit of trust,” Sullivan said. “We have a plan that lays things out. We are not doing this blind.”
Robert Corell, a science teacher at Princeton High, said the school is overcrowded and students often can’t take two science classes in one semester because of space and enrollment issues. He also said the flexible learning spaces the board wants to build are the future of education.
Resident Ralph Perry questioned whether the estimates for annual tax payments for the bond were accurate. Cochrane said the estimates have been reviewed with professionals and officials are very confident about the estimates. Perry also pointed out that the sale of Thanet to the school district will mean that the property will be removed from the tax rolls. The property currently generates $230,000 a year in local tax revenue.
O’Connell pointed out that 30 years is a long time for a bond. School officials said there will be a mix of bonds. “Not every bond will be for 30 years,” Business Administrator Stephanie Kennedy said. “The longest payment will be for 30 years.”