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Princeton School Board: District leaders did not get to provide significant Master Plan input, schools don’t receive money from PILOTs officials negotiated with developers

The Princeton Board of Education issued an open letter to the Princeton Council and Princeton Planning Board on Tuesday regarding the draft Master Plan and the payment in lieu of taxes deals elected officials have struck with the developers of three luxury housing developments in town. Each luxury apartment development includes a 20% set aside for affordable units, which, under municipal ordinances, is a requirement for the development of apartment complexes in Princeton.

Elected officials have negotiated three PILOTS with the developers of the AvalonBay Circle development at Thanet Circle, the AvalonBay development at the Princeton Shopping Center, and The Alice apartment development at the Princeton Shopping Center. Such PILOTS cut the schools out of receiving any tax revenue or PILOT money. The county also receives no tax revenue and will only receive 5% of the PILOT money. The municipality gets the rest of the money to spend as it wishes.

No agreement exists between the municipality and the school board to share any of the PILOT money with the school district. This means taxes for other residents will go up to fund the growing schools.

The letter to the council and planning board first refers to the FAQ that was put out by the planning board last week about the draft master plan.

“The Planning Board advised that there has been ‘significant input from public school leaders’ and that school officials are working with municipal officials to ‘ensure our schools provide outstanding education and enrichment to the children of Princeton’,” reads the letter from the school board.  

“To be clear, a single Board of Education member and, at times, two district employees (meetings were held during the school day so they were seldom able to attend) participated on the Master Plan Steering Committee, an advisory body that met several times, primarily to discuss the process and structure, not substance,” reads the letter. “The Board of Education designee provided high-level language relating to public school facilities. The Board of Education designee also provided models of master plans from other communities where enrollment growth projections were considered. However, enrollment growth was not addressed in the draft Princeton Master Plan.”

According to the letter, the Princeton Board of Education Long Term Facilities Planning Committee met for one hour with the municipal master planning consultants.

“They discussed the Board of Education committee’s current planning process and challenges related to conditional zoning of school sites,” reads the letter. “Apart from this feedback, no other Board of Education members nor district employees were asked for nor provided input on the master plan. In fact, we have never discussed the Master Plan as a full board.”

The letter goes on to say that with more than 1,100 new housing units already being approved by the municipality, the board of education has been working to make sure the district has enough space for the growing student population.

Recent apartment projects offer a glimpse at how many school children the new developments could generate. This school year so far, 229 students from the Merwick-Stanworth apartments and the AvalonBay apartments on Witherspoon Street attend the Princeton Public Schools and the Princeton Charter School.

“With community support, we have updated and expanded existing school facilities. We are now developing additional elementary and middle school expansion plans (to address anticipated capacity needs of the next 5-7 years) for another taxpayer referendum as soon as next year,” reads the letter. “Based on preliminary estimates from district architects, these costs are likely to far exceed $50 million, not including any work at Princeton High School.”

The letter references the Planning Board FAQ statement that “larger homes tend to generate large numbers of children and the proposed master plan does not recommend more zoning for larger homes, quite the contrary” and that “the plan lays a foundation for responsible, incremental growth.”

“Given the scope of the proposed land-use recommendations in the master plan, we are concerned,” reads the school board letter. “Any growth puts pressure on the district’s operating budget and facilities.”

The letter, which was reviewed by and signed off on by the entire school board, goes on to say that Princeton Board of Education members have spoken with municipal officials, and made clear the need for support for the district’s operating revenue. 

“PILOT monies designated to the district’s operating revenue would help us meet the growing needs in the district as we seek to maintain the class sizes to which the community is accustomed while also addressing additional future enrollment growth,” reads the letter. “The Board of Education does not currently receive any funding from any PILOTs that the town has negotiated with developers even though the new developments in town have and will continue to produce additional students throughout the district.”

The Princeton Board of Education has not been involved in any discussions or negotiations related to the development of properties that have or will directly affect the school district, according to the school board. The Princeton Board of Education has negotiated annual, recurring, voluntary payments with Princeton University, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the Princeton Theological Seminary.

The full text of the letter to the Princeton Council and Planning Board: 

We appreciate the time and effort that many officials and community members have dedicated to the master planning process. We are writing to provide clarification on the Board of Education’s involvement in the Municipality of Princeton’s master planning process and PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes).  

The Planning Board recently released a set of FAQs that contained one question (No. 17) about the schools. The Planning Board advised that there has been “significant input from public school leaders” and that school officials are working with municipal officials to “ensure our schools provide outstanding education and enrichment to the children of Princeton.”    

To be clear, a single Board of Education member and, at times, two district employees (meetings were held during the school day so they were seldom able to attend) participated on the Master Plan Steering Committee, an advisory body that met several times, primarily to discuss the process and structure, not substance. The Board of Education designee provided high-level language relating to public school facilities. The Board of Education designee also provided models of master plans from other communities where enrollment growth projections were considered. However, enrollment growth was not addressed in the draft Princeton Master Plan. 

Additionally, the Board of Education’s Long Term Facilities Planning Committee met for one hour with the municipal master planning consultants. They discussed the Board of Education committee’s current planning process and challenges related to conditional zoning of school sites.  Apart from this feedback, no other Board of Education members nor district employees were asked for nor provided input on the master plan. In fact, we have never discussed the Master Plan as a full board. 

As our community has grown, and now with over 1,100 new housing units approved, the Princeton Board of Education has invested significant time and taxpayer resources in ensuring appropriate learning spaces, teachers, and resources for a growing student body. With community support, we have updated and expanded existing school facilities. We are now developing additional elementary and middle school expansion plans (to address anticipated capacity needs of the next 5-7 years) for another taxpayer referendum as soon as next year. Based on preliminary estimates from district architects, these costs are likely to far exceed $50 million, not including any work at Princeton High School.  The Planning Board noted in the FAQ “that larger homes tend to generate large numbers of children and the proposed master plan does not recommend more zoning for larger homes, quite the contrary.” The Planning Board further stated that “the plan lays a foundation for responsible, incremental growth”. Given the scope of the proposed land-use recommendations in the master plan, we are concerned. Any growth puts pressure on the district’s operating budget and facilities. For example, as of this week, there are 229 school-age children attending Princeton Public Schools (and Princeton Charter School) from the Merwick-Stanworth and Avalon on Witherspoon properties. 

Board of Education members have spoken with municipal officials, and we have made clear our need for support for the district’s operating revenue. PILOT monies designated to the district’s operating revenue would help us meet the growing needs in the district as we seek to maintain the class sizes to which the community is accustomed while also addressing additional future enrollment growth. The Board of Education does not currently receive any funding from any PILOTs that the town has negotiated with developers even though the new developments in town have and will continue to produce additional students throughout the district. The Princeton Board of Education has not been involved in any specific discussions or negotiations related to the development of properties that have or will directly affect the school district. The Board of Education has negotiated annual, recurring, voluntary payments with Princeton University, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the Princeton Theological Seminary. We are grateful for these contributions to our operating revenue. 

We appreciate the community’s support for our schools, and we always welcome the opportunity to educate additional children in our schools. However, we must ensure that the school district has the necessary resources to accommodate the anticipated growth and we would like to actively partner with the Municipality in our effort to do so. 

Sincerely, 

The Princeton Board of Education 

5 Comments

  1. Princeton Public Schools are a critical component of our town, and yet a new school has not been built since 1962. The BOE will push to continue to make additions to the current schools, packing as many students as possible into the existing buildings instead of longer term options that make far more sense and would benefit our children much more (such as a 5/6 school at the PPS Valley Rd site). These longer-term options (and preferred to many parents), they say, are off the table because they’re too expensive. Instead, many of us will eventually have children in a middle school packed with 1,000 kids and elementary schools of 600+. This is the future with the status quo.

    Princeton could and should offer substantial PILOT funds to the public school system to help it absorb the existing growth and accommodate new growth. The new master plan should include a commitment to provide a specific and significant percentage of future PILOT funds to the school system. Other communities in NJ are faced with this same problem and have opted to invest much more in their schools than Princeton (See Frenchtown, which is contributing 50% of the 95% their Borough receives through PILOT agreements to their schools: https://frenchtownboro.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/PILOT-Presentation-Country-Classics-Final-2-29-20.pdf).

    Kudos to the BOE for speaking up about this issue and I wish they’d been involved sooner.

  2. It is extremely concerning that the town did not proactively and intensely engage the Board of Ed in the planning process. There is so much we already know about how PILOTs can really negatively impact schools that I don’t even understand how the town didn’t have any foresight on this issue. What’s more, the town has failed to create an inclusive process for the development of its master plan. Notably, working parents of school-aged children have been direly underrepresented as evidenced by the failure to give the schools adequate attention in light of the anticipated growth. Public meetings were indeed held but no effort was made to reach working individuals with children: these individuals are not available during the work day (4pm) and also need to take care of children in the evening when planning board meetings are held. Instead, the whole process has been skewed towards individuals with no children who are arguably older. Not to mention that lower income residents and black and brown as well as foreign born individuals also seem to have been marginalized from the process. At a time when it’s proven that the black population in Princeton has dramatically declined, this is extremely problematic. Finally, there are best practices for participatory democracy and those usually are not considered by expensive consultants like the ones the town has relied on for this. For example: it is possible to go meet people where they live and work. It is possible to offer childcare and provide simultaneous translation (in Spanish, in Mandarin, in sign language) during meetings.

  3. In response to a question from the public on November 9th about meeting our COAH obligations, Planning Board members seemed to think that the town itself funding more affordable housing was too expensive, so they are instead leaving it to the free market…

    But as I commented here after that PB meeting, if it turns out we need a new public school due to ramping population, it could cost taxpayers $100+ million. How does that compare versus the town guaranteeing 100% affordable housing directly, in the final analysis?

  4. Isn’t it true that this master plan is technically not due until 2028 (it was last examined in 2018) but ‘extreme density’ is being rushed now because several members of the planning committee are rolling off in Jan 2024?

  5. Thanks to the PPS BOE for speaking up here. I find the disconnect and misalignment between the two major public entity governing bodies in our small town to be disconcerting at best. The Town Council, its Planning Board and its team of external consultants should have known better – they should have taken all necessary steps to ensure strong alignment with Princeton Public Schools leadership in the development of the new Master Plan. Further, these public bodies should be working together to ensure a strong and resilient future for Princeton, which includes ensuring that our public schools are a top priority.

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