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.

Please share your thoughts on this story.

11 comments
  • You nailed it, ThirdRock. And if you recall, the BOE provided little opportunity for community input on the renewal of the send/receive agreement. Even board members had little time to review the final document, which was one of the points made by Michelle Tuck-Ponder when she voiced dissent to its renewal. Why should we trust the BOE’s decision-making capabilities when they push through such hugely important agreements in the dead of night, where little light can be shed on the terms or the specifics?

  • Yes Dennis…the crowding in PHS, harm to our atmosphere from 15,000+ Cranbury bus trips, negative impact on Cranbury teens forced to rise earlier & get home later than others, & more wouldn’t be concerns if the Cranbury agreement was allowed to come to its natural end in a few years. BOE leaders didn’t hesitate to sue Princeton’s Charter serving Princeton families, but claim the Cranbury agreement too hard to undo…”Shame on the board” indeed. With the exception of members who voted “no”, this BOE has been complicit in doing harm to our kids, neighbors, town, & planet. PHS was a beautiful school until it was sold out by PPS Staff wanting bigger paychecks for themselves.

  • It is really rich that the Cranbury board member is concerned about over crowded classrooms. Build your own local schools in Cranbury and there would be no issue.

    This effort to burden all Princeton residents with higher taxes needs to be rejected. Shame on the board for proceeding with a special ballot in December, that will have low voter turnout. They know if the question was posed during general election voting in November it would be rejected.

  • Yes KCB, Princeton public school kids are safe today. The greatest danger to their future is the BOE’s overblown plans…the 87,000 sq. ft. school with only 31 classrooms, 10,000 sq ft maintenance building needing more maintenance staff to maintain it, the 100,000 sq. ft. building complex for Administrators, the lush home in the woods for school buses, etc. Princeton residents who thought maintenance, security, open windows & air circulation should be everyday basics supplied, wonder what will be super-sized next, by the expanding PPS Admin team, to traumatize us.

  • As a teacher who has spent 15 years teaching in inner city schools — and whose current classroom has a ceiling threatening to cave in at any moment — my heart aches for the teachers and students suffering “psychic trauma” going to their well-funded Princeton schools every day.

    I mean really, let’s get some perspective here. We can barely afford to live here as it is and yet our taxes continue to creep higher and higher because Princeton schools need some other excessively expensive project to be done.

    I want our children to be safe in school. I want there to be enough space for them. I also want Princeton to stop thinking all of us that live here have endless amounts of money to throw their way for this or that. You either have to be in affordable housing or making upwards of $100,000 to be able to live here and it’s a real shame. Most of the parents of our children’s friends can’t wait till their kids graduate so they can get out of here. We’re not far behind.

  • This is the most dysfunctional BOE our town has endured. Good members have bailed because of the haughty behavior of its leadership. Claiming the absences of AC we’ve tolerated for over a decade are now “CO2 emergencies” while proposing outmoded tech to create more CO2 is one example of the rudeness, fear-mongering, & poor planning coming from this BOE. Spann’s presence weighing in on elementary & middle schools matters is another.

  • Princeton’s children will only thrive in the future IF Earth’s atmosphere & environment can safely support their needs. Any actions that further ignite the physics of climate change will end that possibility. Even a small reduction in available oxygen will do great harm to life on our planet. If the BOE does the right thing, our schools will have solar, open windows, fans, oxygen producing grasses on athletic fields, & other healthy, passive, low impact features. We ask all BOE members to read the UN Climate report, other scientific & world economic reports and enter reality now, today, please! The BOE has been given the opportunity to create examples of wise stewardship in an international community. Princeton deserves much better work than uncool plans & actions the BOE keeps bringing to the table. Environmental & economic sustainability in all PPS plans are now essential… Essential not optional… to give our children a safe future.

  • I applaud the BOE’s decision to prioritize the referendum to focus on more urgent matters, such as security and HVAC, while setting aside some of PPS’s more controversial projects pending further research and input from the community. I was, however, deeply disappointed in the comments from Evelyn Spann which, once again, demonstrate her animas towards members of the Princeton community and her scorn for the concept of open government. While the BOE’s decision recognizes the value of obtaining different points of view from Princeton residents and the need for more input and data points before embarking on a project of this scale, Evelyn Spann bemoans the process. Her desire for the BOE to “be the ones to make the decisions” and her claim that those decisions “do not need to be fed to us” betrays both her disdain for this process and her contempt for Princeton residents providing their points of view about projects that directly impact their community. Her comments, which are similar to those she’s made in BOE meetings, run counter to the culture of our town. While we often respectfully disagree with each other, we welcome debate. Indeed that level of openness, where different points of view are freely shared, has helped shape Princeton into the great town that it is. Unfortunately, we in Princeton do not have the ability to vote her out of her position on the school board. Thanks to the terms of the send/receive agreement with Cranberry, she has been foisted upon us, with no political recourse. Thankfully, I’m sure her point of view is not shared by other BOE members. I hope in the interest of our community that someone on the board reminds her of who we are as a community, and how such disrespectful comments are not the Princeton way.

  • I’m glad that the decision was made to move slower on the larger project. $27 million is still a lot of money and the list of projects seems rather small. One can buy 27 houses in Princeton for that money, and we should be getting more than 4 classrooms. Also, sports are important element, but I don’t favor making Princeton less affordable in order to making sports even more prominent.

  • When was the last time establishment bureaucrats said they did not need more money? After all, it is always OPM (other people’s money, that is). Tow No votes from my household they will get.

  • Four additional classrooms? If Cranbury wants to pay for them, fine, but otherwise I’m still voting NO.

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