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Aging buildings drive Princeton school district’s request for voters to approve $26.9 referendum

By Philip Sean Curran
Staff Writer

Stephen C. Cochrane, the Princeton Public Schools Superintendent of Schools,  sought to make the case for a $26.9 million facilities referendum that would pay for security and other upgrades to district schools if voters approve the proposal on Dec. 11.

On Nov. 29, Cochrane spoke with reporters and showed the needs the district faces, in a community where the newest school is more than 50 years old and where enrollment is projected to grow by 700 to 800 students in the next 10 years.

“The challenge we face is really that we have aging buildings, we have student needs within those buildings and we also have this desire to maintain the economic diversity of our town,” he said.

Schools, Cochrane continued, are at or over capacity. At the John Witherspoon Middle School, for example, there is a capacity for 626 students and the school is over that with 757 students for the current school year. Enrollment is projected to reach 853 students in 2020.

To address rising enrollment, district administrators are looking to install four additional classrooms at Princeton High School and renovate an old library in the middle school to add a classroom and a small group room, while expand the nurse’s office.

“We need to build more space and we want to build space that aligns with the ways in which we teach,” Cochrane said. “We’re no longer teaching in ways that are passive, where the teacher stands at the front of the room and just lectures to kids who sit there. We’re teaching in ways that are engaging for students, where they’re not just receiving knowledge, but actually doing something with it.”

In walking through the various projects, the superintendent showed how six schools would get secure entryways. Plans also call for adding air conditioning to the gym at Princeton High School and in 134 rooms at the lower schools, among other projects that are part of the proposal.

If approved on Dec. 11, the referendum would mean an extra $56.84 annually in school taxes for the average home assessment of $837,074, starting in 2020.

The upcoming referendum is a truncated version of proposals that officials had been considering, in excess of $100 million, that would have including building a new school and buying property, among other things.

District administrators eventually opted to go with the smaller plan, even as Cochrane left the door open to having another referendum in 2019.

He said “this referendum is a result of the Board of Education really listening to the diverse perspectives in our community and trying to respond to those.”

“The vision for phase one was really a focus on the most immediate and essential projects, which are the ones around security, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, some renovations at (Princeton High School) and some very basic athletic needs,” he said.

District administrators have left the door open to having another referendum next fall, but there is no dollar amount on how much that referendum could cost at this stage.

On election day, Dec. 11, polling places will be at the four elementary schools, with polls open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Residents who live in voting districts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 will vote at the Johnson Park School.

Residents who live in voting districts 5, 9, 10, 11, 21 and 22 will vote at the Community Park School.

Residents who live in voting districts 7, 8, 12, 17, 18 and 19 will vote at the Riverside School.

Residents who live in voting districts 13, 14, 15, 16 and 20 will vote at the Littlebrook School.

Cochrane declined to say what administrators would do if the referendum is defeated.

“Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, we’re going to have to look to see what more needs to be done,” he said.

The school district has scheduled a public question and answer forum for 7 p.m. on Dec. 3 in the administration building on Valley Road.

The district’s architect, Scott Downie, will be on hand at that meeting.

The board is scheduled to have its final meeting of 2018 the week after the referendum.

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