Princeton Board of Education member Daniel Dart sent a letter to some members of the local community on Sept. 13 expressing his concerns about the school district’s proposal to hire a planner for $140,000. The email triggered a lengthy behind-the-scenes battle to control Dart and keep him from expressing his opinions on sensitive topics like the district’s sending and receiving relationship with Cranbury, school expansion plans, and Westminster Choir College. School officials have consulted with lawyers numerous times about Dart, but how much money has been spent on legal bills is unclear. District officials consulted with lawyers from two law firms on the issue, according to emails Planet Princeton received from a public records request. Only the legal bills from one firm were produced and provided to Planet Princeton as part of the records request. The district is reviewing legal bills from the second firm this week after Planet Princeton noted that bills from the second firm were not provided.
Dear Community Leader,
Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Board of Education held a Special Meeting on Tuesday, September 10 to discuss a $140,000 facilities planning proposal from Connecticut based Milone & Macbroom. A vote on the proposal is scheduled for the September 24 meeting. I have a number of concerns about spending our limited funds on another facilities plan:
-The recent construction-related problems at Riverside Elementary School that cost $27,000 to resolve, and required a delay in school opening, highlight the need to focus on implementing the recently approved $27 million referendum, rather than plan for a new facilities referendum.
-The existing $27 million referendum is adding significant new student capacity to our two largest schools. Student capacity will rise by 75-90 students at JW Middle School and 125-200 students at Princeton High School. There is no need to spend $140,000 on a new facilities plan at this time.
-School enrollment growth cannot be ascertained until the municipality releases the Court Ordered Affordable Housing (COAH) plan. We need to have updated enrollment projections before engaging a new facilities planner.
-Spending money on a facilities planner after reducing staff by 3% in the 2019-2020 budget sends the wrong message to our students, staff and families. I would prefer to spend the $140,000 restoring cuts in teachers, teacher aids, AIS coordinators or liaisons for our economically disadvantaged students.
-Capacity constraints at Littlebrook Elementary School can be addressed by redistricting Institutes for Advanced Study students to Johnson Park next year. This is a convenient solution as the Institutes is located in the Johnson Park school district and their students typically arrive for only two years.
I believe the Board of Education would be better served by answering the following questions before spending limited funds from the Operating Budget or Reserves on an expensive new facilities planning consultant:
1. Can we afford to educate 121 students of PPS staff that live outside our school district, at a $2.2 million annual loss? PPS staff pay either $2,000 or $2,700 per student per year in annual tuition, far below the budgetary cost per pupil of $20,638. PPS would free up space for 121 new Princeton students and eliminate a $2.2 million annual loss as these students graduate, if we stop accepting new, out of district, students.
2. Should we continue to accept new Cranbury students at Princeton High School if we need the classroom space for Princeton students? Classroom space at the high school, now occupied by 270 Cranbury students, could also be used as swing space for JW Middle School that is located across the street from PHS. The economics of the Princeton-Cranbury Send/Receive Agreement (SRA) are not favorable for Princeton taxpayers as Cranbury does not participate in the capital costs of a referendum.
3. Board president Beth Behrend stated she was concerned about capacity at the elementary schools. Can PPS explore a five to ten classroom addition to Johnson Park or Community Park to increase capacity by 125-250 students without having to spend $140,000 for a facilities planning consultant? I believe a PPS architect could investigate adding a wing to one of the elementary schools and create a rendering for less than $10,000.
4. Can PPS evaluate the Westminster Choir College (WCC) property using local expertise rather than a Connecticut based firm? Approximately five of the 23 acre WCC property is potentially affordable, as a nice to have (but not need to have) addition to our schools. PPS could hire a local appraiser for a few thousand dollars to value the acreage that is of most interest to the schools and engage free local experts to assist in a discussion with Rider University.
I would encourage you to attend the September 24th Board of Education meeting to express your views prior to the vote to hire Milone & Macbroom for a new facilities plan.
PPS Parent and Taxpayer
Mr. Dart is writing individually and not on behalf of the Princeton Board of Education.
Dart also sent out the following email and letter to the editor endorsing two candidates for the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education on Oct. 15. School board leaders flagged Dart’s letter to the editor as problematic. The letter was published in early November before the school board election. Other school board members also sent out emails and letters to the editor endorsing other school board candidates.
This is an important time for our public schools and for our community. Our public schools have an annual budget that exceeds $100 million. This spending represents 48% of our overall property tax bill. We must spend our money thoughtfully and wisely to maintain great schools and to keep Princeton affordable.
I am pleased to support Debbie Bronfeld and Dafna Kendal for election to the Princeton Board of Education. Independent oversight of our schools is vital for students, families and the community at large. Board members must strike a delicate balance with decisions on curriculum, personnel, class size, facilities and affordability.
I have been working collaboratively with BoE member Debbie Bronfeld since my term began in January, 2019. She cares deeply about our students, teachers and community. She works exceptionally hard on multiple committees. She asks probing questions and is focused on academic excellence, equity and fiscal sustainability. Debbie is an independent thinker and votes no on wasteful spending. She wants to keep Princeton affordable and she prioritizes teachers over expensive new facilities.
I have also been privileged to know candidate and former Board member Dafna Kendal. Last year, in response to significant community concern over a proposed facilities referendum, Dafna skillfully pared down the size of the referendum by $103 million or 79%, to ensure that the resulting proposal addressed our schools’ most pressing needs. These critical improvements include new vestibules for safety and security, air conditioning, three new flexible classrooms at JW Middle School and a new addition with four classrooms and new athletic space at Princeton High School.
Dafna Kendal has also been instrumental in raising funds from institutions that benefit our students without burdening our taxpayers. She led successful efforts to raise $200,000 from an anonymous foundation and to earn a $500,000 payment from an organization with children of staff that attend our great schools.
Ms. Kendal also informed the Board that Cranbury was not paying all of its contractual obligations to reimburse PPS for Special Education costs after the Superintendent announced a 3% reduction in staff earlier this year. Her information was confirmed by a new analysis and Cranbury was billed an additional $166,000 for the 2018-2019 school year.
Our public schools have significant financial resources to fulfill our educational mission and to address the challenges ahead. The schools’ budgetary cost per pupil ranks as the 3rd highest of 97 school districts in our peer group (NJDOE Taxpayers’ Guide to Educational Spending).
However, we need thoughtful and skilled leadership to prioritize spending on that which is most important to the educational outcomes we desire for all our children, and to keep our community affordable. I hope that you will support board candidates Debbie Bronfeld and Dafna Kendal for election on November 5.
Daniel J. Dart
Although the writer is a Member of the Princeton Board of Education, he is writing in his private, individual capacity and not on behalf of the Board of Education.