Planet Princeton

Bigger referendum questions off the table for now: School board will ask Princeton voters to approve $27 million in December

The Princeton Public Schools Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday night to put one question on the ballot this December. Voters will be asked to approve $27 million for school renovations.

About $103 million was cut from the referendum. The board will revisit the other proposed expansion plans that have been tabled for this December in the coming months, and voters will be asked to consider a second, larger referendum next year.

The board was going to ask voters to approve $130 million for renovations and expansions, a new administration building, and a new 5-6 school. The board later decided to break the referendum up into two questions — one question for $47 million and a second question for $83 million. In just the last few days, the board decided to reduce the bond referendum to $27 million.

In recent weeks, residents have been circulating petitions for and against putting the original $130 million proposal on the December ballot. Supporters of the larger referendum began a campaign last week calling on the board to put the full $130 million on the December ballot.

“We learned it is important to find a compromise that is a broad compromise, that works for a large section of the community, for our children, as well as a large part of our economically stressed community,” School Board President Patrick Sullivan said. “The question is not whether we do something, but how to do it in a way where we can all come together instead of this driving us apart. When we find a compromise, I know we will have found it when nobody is happy. I think we are going to get there tonight.”

In a special election on Dec. 11, voters will be asked to approve funding for new HVAC systems in the schools, security upgrades at all the schools, and other improvements at the high school, including air conditioning in the gym, more space for sports, a renovated guidance office area, and four additional classrooms.

Sullivan proposed that the board develop a 12-month plan to address other needs in a second referendum that would be put on the ballot in the fall of 2019.

“This is not the end of the road,” he said. “This is a 12-month plan to begin a set of community dialogues and receive broad community input about facilities needs and costs.”

Sullivan said the discussions should be mediated by a neutral party who can collect thoughts and build consensus. He added that town officials should have a role, sharing their expertise and vision regarding traffic and land use issues. Sullivan said the year delay also gives people in financial distress more breathing room while the community continues to pay off old construction bonds.

Asked about the Thanet property that the district had planned to buy to use for administrative offices and buses, Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane said he still likes the property. “I hope Thanet can stay in the mix as we move forward talking to the community about the best use of limited land within the town of Princeton. It’s harder to place land without a clearly defined purpose on a referendum,” he said. “Our hope is that the property will be available to us as we move forward.” Cochrane and school board member Debbie Bronfeld also said there may be other space options for the administration and buses if the proposed 5-6 school is located at the Valley Road site.

School board member Dafna Kendal said she and some other board members did not think Thanet was the best option to meet the district’s needs.

David Wetherill, the president of the Governor’s Lane Condominium Association, said residents in his neighborhood are concerned about the possibility of using the Thanet property for school buses. “We have 65 homes right next to the parking lot, and some members have a very clear view of the lot,” he said. “We heard it would be a bus depot or a bus terminal. don’t know if that is in the plan…We would request a lot of screening. We would be happier with a school there.”

Evelyn Spann, the Cranbury representative on the school board, asked how much postponing bigger projects would cost the district in terms of construction costs. “It’s hard for me to sit around table and hear about Thanet…I don’t like being surprised around this table,” she said. “The leadership has to be buttoned up if we are doing this. I get the stepping back…My big issue with this is we are not addressing enrollment, and that is what started the process. We have a middle school that needs our assistance. The John Witherspoon School is over capacity. My concern is, we are not addressing the issue of enrollment. I’m on board with the plan, but I’m not happy with the process. We are here to deliberate and hash things out. We need to be the ones to make decisions. They don’t need to be fed to us.”

School board member Michele Tuck Ponder said postponing the vote on the larger projects gives the board another opportunity to have dialogue with the community. “What I’m hoping is that as we engage in another conversation, we lead with our values,” she said.

During public comment, resident Jian Chen said postponing the other projects gives the district the time to come up with a plan that is good for both students and the larger community. “I  continue to believe that compliance with the affordable housing settlement is the biggest challenge this town faces,” he said.

Resident Mia Sacks applauded the board for its compromise plan. “You’ve demonstrated we can conduct civic life in a different way, without polarization,” she said. “I view the core package as the beginnings of a draft. The 5-6 school, Thanet and the high school are a draft that is almost final, but not quite the final paper.”

She said she is confident there will be broad support for the bigger projects. “Those who suggested new facilities are a luxury should spend more time in the buildings,” she said. “Children and teachers experience psychic trauma daily having to inhabit these buildings.”

Resident Stephanie Chorney thanked the board for listening to the community. “I know you can work on improved solutions and I appreciate the compromise,” she said, adding that the original proposed $130 million spending plan was not all for emergency work.

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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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