PPS Referendum- How’s our Money Being Spent?

Whether you have children in the public schools or not, if you own a home in Princeton your taxes are affected by the Princeton Public Schools referendum. Fifteen months ago the residents of Princeton voted to approve the most recent bond referendum for $26.9m. With remote learning currently in place, and limited faculty on site at the schools, the referendum work is expected to continue. As contractors are taking extra health precautions for their workers, and we inch closer to summer and the impending June retirement of Superintendent Steve Cochrane, where has our money gone and what is still to be done?

Seven projects were outlined in this referendum and so far, three are completed. Those include a new HVAC system at Riverside Elementary School, air conditioning installed at the Princeton High School gym and some elementary school electrical upgrades. The fourth project, security upgrades at the town’s four elementary schools, was awarded at the November 2019 Board of Education public meeting.

Security at the Schools

Security seems like it’d be an early priority and initially, the security vestibule construction was planned for 2019. But earlier last year, as the PPS Board and administration began preparations, they learned more time was needed to make the security transition more successful. It was important to take time, Superintendent Cochrane said, “to fully educate our community about our security needs and approaches and to begin to change behaviors and practices before constructing the vestibules.” The district implemented lobby guards, set up new technology systems for visitors and met with parents and staff at each school. This month, security films were installed over the elementary school windows. Most of the designs for the new vestibules were completed by January, but there was a minor change at Littlebrook and input from some constituents at Community Park prompted further adjustments. “When I looked at the plans, I thought the design could be simpler,” says professional architect and Community Park parent, Louisa Clayton. “I just made some tweaks to the vestibule and also to the front office space to work better with visibility.” The district and BOE worked with Clayton and others to make the modifications, while trying to push things along and stay on schedule, but the Board is still waiting to learn if these changes will affect pricing. Doors and hardware have been ordered and interior classroom door replacement is scheduled to begin during the night-shift, one school at a time, as early as April. The remaining vestibule and construction work in the elementary schools is still planned to be done over the summer, where many existing entry doors will be reused.

John Witherspoon Middle School gets Started

John Witherspoon Middle School renovations have begun. It started with minor piping work in February and at the start of March, major projects. The old library, or Academic Conference Center (ACC) is sealed off and will be converted into four flexible learning spaces. Part of that space was initially planned for an expanded nursing area, but the Board decided to save that for classrooms and instead incorporate a front school office to completely overhaul the nurses’ suite with proper medical, exam and resting rooms, as well as a bathroom. “This was not a change as much as doing what was planned, a little better,” adds Board member Brian McDonald, authorized by the Board President and Superintendent to speak about the referendum on behalf of the Board. Attempts were made to confine the noise, as some of this work was taking place during school hours. Major demolition is scheduled to begin this weekend, and with no students on campus during remote learning, may even accelerate. JW Principal Jason Burr has been sending weekly emails to school families to keep them abreast of the scope of work and its progress. Additionally, when students return in September, they can expect a new secure and reconfigured entryway as well as new air conditioning units in 46 classrooms and HVAC in the cafeteria and new ACC space.

Elementary HVAC Fixes

Last summer’s HVAC project at Riverside Elementary School, which caused Riverside students to begin classes one day after the rest of the district, has framed the way plans are being made for future projects. This includes the air conditioning and heating improvements at JW and the remaining elementary schools. From experiences in other districts, the Board also learned to push construction dates, guaranteeing everything is prepped, ordered and on site before project launch. As district rules dictate, the elementary schools’ bids and the middle school bid were awarded to the lowest, qualified and responsible bidder at the December Board of Education public meeting. McDonald says they learned from the Riverside project that “including more milestones in the bids and the contracts to ensure that the contractor has very clear intermediate deadlines” will better track the work is getting done. In preparation, most of the wire for these jobs has already been run at the other three elementary Schools. Switchgears have been delivered and are being positioned outside and the Board hopes to get the new transformers at Littlebrook and Community Park installed before the end of spring break but PPS doesn’t have full control as the transformers are provided and installed by PSE&G. A/C unit installation at those two schools is planned to take place at the close of school this June. To ensure proper access, PSE&G requires the Johnson Park transformer be relocated. At its next meeting the Board plans to vote and finalize the new location so it can get installed (hopefully also during spring break), however, due to its large summer school program and a need to relocate students, Johnson Park’s new HVAC systems won’t be bid until next year and fully installed until summer 2021.

High School Renovations

The high school improvements are hoping to see some momentum this week, with work on the 2nd level fitness center and four additional classrooms expected to break ground this summer. This is part of the final major project outlined in the PPS referendum, which totals approximately $10,000,000. It also includes high school guidance renovation, drainage and athletic field improvements. The high school project is a bit different than the others, as it’s a full 12-months of work (not a short-term, summer-only plan) and the HS site plans require approval from the state before permits can be issued. PPS is still awaiting this final feedback and the Board is aiming to get bid papers out early April to begin work in June.  Due to safety concerns and the complicated set of projects, the work will be done in pieces through summer 2021.

Expected to be completed this summer, however, is an auxiliary dining space in the high school, though it won’t be funded by the referendum. Final costs for each project have come in a bit higher than estimated. With costs tight, the BOE sought out other ways to get wanted projects completed and found money in an existing Food Service Enterprise Fund to support this new dining option. Upgrades to the HS elevators have been deemed important, but the referendum may not have enough funds to cover them, either. Those funds and other smaller projects may come from the district’s $2.3m Capital Reserve Fund. “Pushing up against the limit of referendum funds is not uncommon,” says McDonald. “But we will continue to do our best to get everything done inside the $26.9m envelope and will not defer anything really core to the referendum.” This issue has prompted some hard questions from constituents but does fall within the law.

What’s next?

The 2018 referendum did not fully solve for Princeton Public Schools growing population. So, could there be another referendum on the horizon? “The District’s current planning process was not designed to give us a new referendum,” says Cochrane, as the district is currently reviewing the use and functionality of existing facilities and evaluating educational needs. In January, they held a public forum where current and future demographic numbers and enrollment forecasts were presented to the public. The data indicates Princeton’s K-8 enrollment has increased 10% already in the past four years and K-12 is projected to grow up to 20% in the next ten. Additionally, 780 of the new Fair Share Housing units will be designed to accommodate families. Updated and more detailed demographic data was also shared with the community on February 27th. Cochrane says that data was provided to allow us to work together to figure out the best way to address the growth now and for the future. “As of yet, we do not know what those options will be,” he adds. “Some of those options could involve facility improvements; some could involve redrawing our elementary sending areas; some could involve creative changes in our school schedules; and certainly the planning process will produce other options for all of us to consider.” After extremely contentious pushback from some community members through the 2018 referendum planning process, PPS is asking for community input and is collaborating through workshops, informational meetings, focus groups and email blasts.  Additional community meetings were planned for the end of March and April, though with social distancing in place that schedule may get altered. The Board intends to continue this work, despite Superintendent Cochrane’s departure at the end of June. Board of Education President, Beth Behrend shared that “Steve’s departure will be a loss for PPS but our work on major initiatives including planned facilities renovations will continue full speed ahead.” She added the district is committed to finding proper learning spaces for all students and staff.

Anyone in the community that wants to be kept abreast of referendum and planning information but is not part of the Princeton Public School population should send their contact information to Communications@princetonk12.org.

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