Now is the wrong time for a school bond referendum in Princeton

Dear Editor:

On July 17th, I attended the Board of Education meeting of Princeton Public Schools. I felt compelled to offer a new perspective on the proposed referendum to increase the town’s bond indebtedness by $130,000,000. Instead, for the first two hours I had to listen to a social psychologist’s report about inequality and iniquity in the schools. This one almost put me asleep. Why? It was nothing new. We had heard about the same issues long ago from then Superintendent Philip MacPherson.

The advice that I had come to offer was that from the real estate point of view, perhaps this project for renovating the schools is being proposed at the wrong time. My background is as a Princeton real estate broker for 40 years. The current time is now a time of great fiscal uncertainty in the local real estate market in New Jersey, and especially in Princeton.

In short, most of us know that there will be a sizeable readjustment that will occur to the value of homes based on the recent changes in the federal tax laws regarding the deductibility of property taxes. What we don’t know is how much that will impact the real estate market in Princeton. The downturn is only beginning.

Signs are already there that property values will be declining in the immediate area. During the last Great Recession, property values stayed flat, then decreased by about 10% in Princeton while they decreased almost a third in both Montgomery Township and West Windsor Township. Like Princeton, both had excellent school systems. Please be aware that this time around, several other knowledgeable brokers are seeing signs that this imminent real estate storm seems worse than the last one. It’s not just the market any longer, but a deliberate tampering with it, and with the value of real estate.

What does this have to do with the equity in your home? When the value goes down, so does your equity. Many of us have counted upon that equity to borrow against for the educational needs of our children. If that equity is seriously depleted, then education may become prohibitively expensive. It sounds a little bleak, but it’s not as bleak for those who are renting here, only for those counting on the value of their homes, which are usually most people’s largest investment.

Increasing the educational tax load of the average home in Princeton by $750.00 per year may not sound like a lot of money to either executives or couples with two incomes, but it is for people with more modest homes and lower taxes, as in the Witherspoon Jackson Area, for example. It can be especially hard also on the elderly on fixed incomes, many of whom will be forced to leave their community and move elsewhere. There are many of these older people who have continued to live in the community for three decades after their children have graduated from Princeton High School. This is unlike those who flock here from other areas temporarily, and agree to pay excessive rents while their children are in the Princeton Public Schools, as if they were the equivalent of free public prep schools, and then move away, or back abroad “to take care of their ailing parents.” Permanent residents care about the future, instead of just using the system. As for parents of Cranbury’s students, which of them will continue to pay on the bonds?

I suggest that now is the wrong time to put one more straw (or bale of hay) on the camel’s back. While I, too, believe in a good education for all of our children, and that we may have to consider some of these expenses soon, I think that it would be foolhardy to do it now, in the face of a brewing storm.

James Firestone


  1. Good points all. This striking sentence fits some folks I know: “…those who flock here from other areas temporarily, and agree to pay
    excessive rents while their children are in the Princeton Public
    Schools, as if they were the equivalent of free public prep schools, and
    then move away, or back abroad ‘to take care of their ailing parents.'”

    1. Dear Pat, Ask the parents you know to drive up Thanet’s driveway. They will see the quiet, light filled, inspiring natural spaces their children need today to remedy overcrowding. Ask those parents if they’d rather have their children learning next to firehouse sirens, rescue sirens, & traffic in a municipal business corridor. Let’s also ask successful business folks we know to remember that the foundation of our town used to be wisdom… and ask them to share their wisdom now to shape PPS’s future intelligently. We must, because PPS leaders are on the LoveBoat with developers, going full throttle, selling plans that have a short lifespan again, placing administration first. Note: PPS leaders have chosen the largest square footage and most immediate space solution for themselves, while whining about crowding in schools Damage to the fabric of our town and the loss of diversity are real concerns. Such losses will be irreversible if those who just come to dip into Princeton’s breadbasket are fed before resident citizens.

  2. Great points. Certainly, there are a number of families in my neighborhood (retirees, single moms, and even duel-income families) who are struggling to pay year-upon-year of tax increases in Princeton, particularly in light of wage stagnation over the past decade. I’m not opposed to improvements to the buildings in the district, but I fear that the BOE has failed to take into account the fiscal concerns of members of our community. Certainly, the referendums under consideration appear to include many projects — such as the astroturfing of the sports fields, the gutting of the interior of the HS building, and the acquisition of the Thanet Road property — that are not urgent or that haven’t been thought through. For most organizations, a failure to prioritize or conduct proper due diligence before embarking on a project of this scale would not be tolerated, but for the BOE, it appears to be business as usual.

  3. Thank you, Mr. Firestone, for adding your voice & expert analysis to those of other brave, kind, esteemed citizens in our community. We need you & more like you to speak up, because we all love our kids, love our town, support education and want our District to be an eternal standout. PPS’s tragically poor track record in fiscal & facilities management isn’t getting us there. Please drive up Thanet’s driveway. Look at the site. You will see a healthy setting for kids to be educated… quiet, light filled, inspiring natural spaces. Today residents are still paying off 90+million dollars in PPS building bonds, to fund the messes & overruns that an 80 million dollar referendum & supposed dream team produced. Deja Vu…this new referendum contains more reflux from over consumption, & design flaws. IF we allow PPS Administrators to get cozy in the secluded 110,000 square feet Thanet woods offers, they’ll never come out of their tree house & down to earth… never ever.,, and our kids and our town will get a second rate, concrete mall styled future.

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