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PRINCETON: School district mulls options for enrollment growth

Princeton schools logo 6/11/15

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
The Princeton Board of Education last week explored using the power of eminent domain to acquire land for a new school, in a general conversation focused on process and not on a specific piece of property., The discussion occurred during the closed session meeting the school board had April 25, with the minutes of that meeting saying using eminent domain is not an option “at this time.”, “We are trying, as a board, to look ten, fifteen years down the road and just want to know what our options are in a community where space is limited,” Superintendent of Schools Stephen C. Cochrane said by phone Monday., “It’s a long process, and there’s a lot we need to do to evaluate our options,” school board President Patrick Sullivan said Monday, also by phone., For Cochrane and the district, they are dealing with a series of interconnected matters – some of which they control and some they do not – that will influence how they plan the future of the school system., For instance, more housing development will be built in Princeton. The municipality has reached a deal in “principle” to end a litigation pitting Princeton against an affordable housing advocacy group, the Fair Share Housing Center, on what the town’s affordable housing requirement will be., “It’s important that we are collectively, as a community, planning for the future and exercising some control, so that we end up with growth that serves the interests of the town,” Mayor Liz Lempert said Monday., Enrollment, districtwide, stands at 3,756, a school population that is projected to grow., “We’re a growing district and will probably be looking to provide for the additional housing that’s going to come as a result of the settlement with Fair Share Housing regarding affordable housing and the associated market share housing,” Cochrane said. “We’re looking at considerably more enrollment as a result of the settlement.”, In turn, he and the school board will need to accommodate more children, in what would be a significant financial investment in a community where middle-class taxpayers say they are being squeezed. In looking ahead, Cochrane said the district expects to expand Princeton High School and decide whether to expand schools in the lower grades or create a new school, like one for grades five and six., “You can understand how that would take pressure off the middle school with moving the sixth grade into another building and take pressure off all of the elementary schools by moving the fifth grade into another building,” he said. “That’s one option.”, The school board has expressed interest in possibly acquiring Rider University’s Westminster Choir College campus to put a new school there. Rider’s administration is looking to sell Westminster to a buyer interested in keeping the music school in Princeton. One possibility is that the new owner of Westminster only wants the school and not the real estate, leaving Rider to find a buyer for the more than 20-acre parcel contiguous with the high school and John Witherspoon Middle School., Cochrane ruled out that school district using its power of condemnation to acquire the Westminster campus., He could not get into what the board discussed, at the same closed session meeting last week, for what the meeting minutes described as a “confidential RFP for the Rider property.” RFP stands for request for proposal, something government bodies use when seeking to hire a vendor., “I can’t discuss that at this time,” Cochrane said about what the RFP had to do with., “I can’t discuss confidential matters,” Sullivan said., But comments earlier by Cochrane suggested the issue might have had to do with hiring an appraiser., “If the option becomes available for us to look at the Westminster Choir College, we have to be able to assess its market value,” Cochrane said., At the same time, the district is working toward having a facilities bond referendum, either at the end of this year or in the first part of 2018., “That would be in the timeline we have talked about,” Sullivan said., “This is a very exciting time,” Cochrane said. “We’re excited about the possibilities for the district as we move forward.”

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