The local school tax rate for property owners in Princeton will increase by 3.3 cents per $100 of assessed property value for the 2019-20 year under the proposed budget for the Princeton Public Schools, a 2.94 percent increase over the current academic year. The owner of a home assessed at the town average of $838,562 will pay an additional $276 in school taxes, officials said.
Including debt service, the total proposed budget will be just over $100 million, a 1.8 percent increase over this academic year. The general fund tax levy will be $78,244,588, a $1,997,954 increase over this academic year. The local tax levy will increase 2.62 percent. The state cap on the tax levy is two percent, but Princeton school officials asked for a tax cap waiver because of health insurance costs.
The debt service tax levy will be almost $6 million, an increase of about $786,000 over this year. It turns out the district had been offsetting annual debt service with income from a settlement fund, and that money has now been spent. The debt service also went up because of the new $27 million bond referendum. Total debt service will be just over 6.4 million, an increase of 11.4 percent. The district will receive about $223,000 in state aid for debt service.
“We have been offsetting our local tax debt service from a prior settlement agreement we had,” said Thomas Venanzi, the interim business administrator and board of education secretary. “For the current year, we had appropriated $586,000 from that settlement fund. That fund has dried up. Now all that money has to be paid by taxes. We are still fine tuning things and we may be able to knock that number down…but even if that number goes down the difference is only going to be $12 or $13 (for the average homeowner).”
Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane said this year has been one of the most difficult budget processes the district has been though. Energy costs have risen, contract obligations are above two percent for district employees, enrollment is up more than two percent a year, healthcare costs are up, and the expansion of the charter school has impacted the district, he said.
“Lots of factors are driving us way past that two percent line that makes very difficult from a long-term perspective,” Cochrane said.
The district was able to decrease a $2 million budget gap with a $450,000 health care tax cap waiver from the state. The district also received $130,000 more in state aid this year than last year. Officials had hoped for more aid.
Officials had to make cuts to programs and staff to balance the budget. Some positions were eliminated through attrition, and some teacher stipends for extra activities will be eliminated. Officials did not say which positions will be eliminated. Spending for supplies and equipment was kept flat or reduced.
The charter school will receive $6.5 million for educating 417 students next year. Cranbury will pay $18,555 per pupil to send its students to Princeton High School.
Board member Brian McDonald said school officials need to restart conversations with nonprofits about contributions that former board member Dafna Kendal initiated last year. He also said the district needs to look at getting voluntary support for public education from the local community.
“It feels like we are at super slow slow motion and the nose of the car has just begin to hit the wall,” McDonald said. “All of the compression and airbags are about to happen.”
Board member Daniel Dart said the public schools district in Summit has done some innovative things to cut costs. The education foundation there has an endowment fund and an annual fund that provide financial support to the district. Summit is also not afraid to charge parents for some services like paid kindergarten, he said. Summit also offers virtual education electives at the high school level.
School board member Greg Stankiewicz said Summit can’t be compared to Princeton even though the district has similar demographics, because Summit doesn’t have a charter school.
School board member Jessica Deutsch said the Summit district doesn’t include equity as a goal.
Many area districts have begun to charge athletics fees or activities, and students who can’t afford to pay the fees receive waivers.
Cochrane said a district can only charge for full-day kindergarten if the district doesn’t already offer it.
School board member Michele Tuck-Ponder said the district should partner with other districts on issues like state mandates, but must also change how it does business.
“We can’t insist upon having classes with no more than 21 students in them,” Tuck-Ponder said. “There are so many things we do because we feel this sense of entitlement that we can’t afford to do any longer.”
She said the district needs to tighten its own belt and be realistic about what the community can afford in terms of a tax levy. “Everything needs to be on the table,” Tuck-Ponder said.