Princeton voters could be asked to approve up to $10 million to fund upgrades to public school buildings this November.
The new referendum could come less than two years since the last one was approved. In January of 2022, voters approved $17.5 million worth of bonds for critical repairs and new roofing for all six schools.
Members of the long-term facilities planning committee for the Princeton Board of Education presented a report about facilities needs and student population growth at the school board meeting on Tuesday night, March 21.
School board members Beth Behrend and Brian McDonald reviewed a consultant’s most recent projections for student population growth in the district. More than 1,100 new housing units will be built over the next five years. Many of the developments are being built as part of the Princeton Council’s 2019 court settlement with Fair Share Housing regarding affordable housing. The latest district demographic study projects that these new housing developments in Princeton will bring about 460 students to the school district.
Most of the new apartment developments are 80% market-rate housing and 20% affordable housing. The largest project will be Avalon Princeton Circle, a development off of Thanet Road that will consist of 221 apartments and townhouses. The Princeton Council approved a 30-year PILOT agreement with AvalonBay for the Thanet property back in 2021. Under that agreement, AvalonBay will be exempt from paying taxes for the property for 30 years. AvalonBay will instead pay the town an “annual service charge” or payment in lieu of taxes, with 95% of that money going to the municipality and 5% going to the county. The school board was not included to receive any of the PILOT money in that agreement.
Enrollment in the Princeton Public Schools is expected to increase by about 12 percent over the next five years because of all of the new housing developments and other trends. The number of students being educated by the Princeton Public Schools is projected to increase by about 433 students by the 2027-28 school year.
McDonald said it is possible that the board will ask voters to approve a small referendum of $10 million or less in the general election in November of 2023. He and Behrend said a referendum would possibly fund safety and security upgrades to the doors and locks at the high school and middle school, an improved technology network, the resurfacing of the track, turf field replacement, playground drainage remediation, cell phone boosters, and a generator for Johnson Park Elementary. At the high school, McDonald said officials are also looking at improvements such as upgrading the nursing suite and a potential technology space renovation. Officials will also evaluate the impact of the new wing at the high school in terms of capacity.
Over the next two months, officials will decide what priorities should be funded in a referendum and whether a referendum should be on the ballot in November.
It is possible voters also will be asked to approve a bigger bond referendum in a few years to fund expanding the capacity at some of the district’s schools. School board members debated Tuesday whether to plan for 10 years of student population growth or five. Board President Dafna Kendal said she thought it was better to plan for five years because demographic projections for 10 years can be inaccurate. Board Member Michelle Tuck Ponder said at one point a large section of Johnson Park Elementary School was closed because of a decline in the student population.
Board Member Deb Bronfeld also asked the committee members what they think should be done with the Valley Road Building.
“The building itself needs to be dealt with at some point because it could become a hazard,” Behrend said. She said the school board might want to think about “potential transactions, ” related to the building, meaning selling or leasing out the property.
“We know we need high-quality space for our administration, some storage, space for our buses within the municipality, and we also know Witherspoon Street is changing a lot,” McDonald said. “Some people have suggested it would be an excellent site for a multi-use, multi-purpose development that could include multi-family housing…We could develop that property, generate a stream of revenue, and still have space there or somewhere else for our needs.”
Behrend said the committee has been in talks with the municipality about development along the Witherspoon corridor.
Kendal said she is a big supporter of the Valley Road building. “It is located in the center of town and it was put there many years ago for that reason. The town is growing, so I would just caution that we have a lot going on here, so the development of Valley Road is something that could maybe wait,” she said. “With the field and the need to have buses located in the town, I would be hard-pressed to want to go outside of our mission of educating kids.”
Behrend said elementary school and middle school changes need to happen immediately to accommodate for growth and balance the elementary schools. District officials are looking at how best to configure the elementary schools in particular in the long term. They are looking at redistricting and also at a sister school model.
“The sister school model is one that has been adopted in some communities, and one that our planners are familiar with,” McDonald said. “You would take our four schools, and you would put them into pairs. So hypothetically Johnson Park and Community Park would be paired. Little Brook and Riverside would be paired. One of those schools would be a K-2 school, and the other school would be a (grade) 3-5 school, which would allow for significantly more balancing of class sizes, and having more students who are developmentally the same or similar ages together. There are some negatives that come with it — it means more transitions — and it can be challenging from a transportation perspective. But that’s the snapshot of the idea that we’d be asking our administrators to consider along with several other ideas.”
Behrend said nothing has been decided about the referendums, redistricting, or the school pairing concept.