A controversy is brewing on the school board for the Princeton Public Schools about transparency regarding cost savings from COVID-19, how the savings should be used, and why some board members were not informed about savings projections sooner.
The Princeton Public Schools saved about $1 million for the 2019-20 school year due to COVID-19. Remote instruction meant the district did not need to spend as much on transportation, substitute teachers, supplies, and other items.
The school district budget for 2020-21 that was adopted on May 5 included an increase in the local tax levy of about $1.37 million. After the budget was adopted, board members learned later in the month about an estimated $1 million in cost savings for the school year. Exactly when they learned is a fact that is disputed by some board members.
Some board members argue that cost-saving projections should have been done before the budget was adopted so the board could weigh the option of giving residents tax relief because of the economic hardship created by the pandemic. The governing body for the municipality did not increase taxes for the budget this year because of the pandemic.
According to a school board source who is not authorized to speak for the board, some board members first learned about the $1 million in savings at a closed school facilities committee meeting in late May. After one board member pressed officials about the issue, the superintendent of schools issued an email on May 31 detailing the estimated savings and potential unknowns for budgeting for the next school year.
School Board President Beth Behrend disputes that board members were informed of the $1 million savings late in the month and says the business administrator for the district did an analysis of cost savings in mid-May and concluded only then that it was likely that the 2019-20 year would finish with revenues exceeding expenses by about $1 million. She says the board was informed of this preliminary analysis within 24 hours of it being completed, and that at the time, there was extensive discussion about the high level of uncertainty that might necessitate revisions to the budget in late August or early September because of the possibility that state aid could change and other factors.
Another school board member who is not authorized to speak for the board said the full board only learned about the $1 million figure in the May 31 email. The board member said some board members had pressed school officials for estimates on COVID-19 cost savings prior to the adoption of the budget, but never received answers.
The $1 million in savings adds to the district’s $6 million fund balance. The district has about $2.2 million in its capital reserve fund. At the school board’s June 9 meeting, board members approved the option to transfer up to $1 million from fund balance into the district’s capital reserves at the last school board zoom meeting, but Behrend said this is routine and is done every June.
Some of the school board members are questioning how the $1 million in savings will be spent by the district. One board member says some board members were told the money would be spent on the new concession stand and bathroom at the high school football field. The bathroom will include three toilets. The cost being charged by the district’s contractor for the three bathrooms plus the concession stand and storage area is $530,000.
Some board members say the restroom project that was originally part of the $27 million bond referendum was put on hold because of the extremely high cost, as well as referendum cost overruns for items like new HVAC systems that ate up all of the $27 million.
Behrend claims that the capital reserve will not be used to pay for the restroom concession building and that the project will be paid out of referendum proceeds. She said some capital reserve funds will be needed to supplement the referendum bond proceeds in order to complete the HVAC project planned for the Johnson Park School next summer because of increases in project costs since the original estimates were made in 2018.
In response to Behrend, one board member said the allocation of the money is fungible. The board member said if there was no money in capital reserve, the school board would not be choosing the concession stand project over the HVAC project.
Some board members also have criticized the way the concession stand project has been folded into a vote for other projects at the high school on the agenda for the board of education’s 7:30 p.m. zoom meeting tonight, forcing board members to vote for all of the renovations in one vote or against all.
Some board members also contend that the board was kept in the dark about a meeting between municipal officials and school board officials regarding school taxes. Behrend said the district leadership does meet regularly with the mayor, council and municipal leadership to discuss matters of mutual concern but has not met separately to discuss taxation levels or any other subject. A municipal citizen’s finance advisory committee member told Planet Princeton Monday night that school leaders and a staff member met with town officials via zoom early on during the pandemic but that the meeting was informal.