Princeton school district to seek bond referendum for siding repairs at three elementary schools

Princeton voters will be asked to approve a $17.5 million facilities referendum in January 2022 to replace leaky roofs at all of the schools and to make siding repairs at three of the elementary schools.

The Princeton Public Schools Board of Education voted 8-2 on the resolution, which sets Jan. 25, 2022, as the date for the bond referendum. Polling places will be set up at the four elementary schools. Mail-in ballots will be sent to voters who request them.

The “yes” votes were cast by school board members Betsy Baglio, Beth Behrend, Jean Durbin, Susan Kanter, Dafna Kendal, Brian McDonald, Michele Tuck-Ponder and Cranbury School District representative Peter Katz. Cranbury sends its high school students to Princeton High School.

The two dissenting school board members were Daniel Dart and Debra Bronfeld. They voted against the bond referendum at the school board’s Nov. 16 meeting.

“It is with regret that I am going to vote ‘no.’ A lot of good work has gone into (preparing the proposed facilities stewardship referendum),” Dart said.

Dart said he would like the school district to complete work on its current $26.9 million bond referendum, which was approved by voters in December 2018, before tackling the proposed $17.5 million bond referendum.

Dart said there have been delays and cost overruns on the 2018 referendum, while making it clear that none of it is the fault of the current school district administration or school board members. The 2018 referendum was “incredibly challenging” and “incredibly complex,” he said.

Instead of a new bond referendum, school district officials should pursue the warranties on the leaky roofs, Dart said. Portions of the roofs were replaced in 1995 and 2004. The roofs carry a 20-year warranty, which has expired on the earlier roof replacement projects and which will be expiring on the later roof projects.

The bond referendum earmarks $5.9 million to replace the 1995-era roofs at the Community Park, Johnson Park and Littlebrook elementary schools and Princeton High School.

An additional $6.9 million will cover the cost of replacing the 2004-era roofs at those schools, plus the Riverside School and the Princeton Middle School.

All of the roofs will be made solar-ready. The Lawrence Township Public Schools installed solar panels on the roofs of its schools in 2008, and more recently, the Hopewell Valley Regional School District, the Franklin Township Public Schools and the Plainfield Public Schools have installed rooftop solar panels on their school buildings.

The remainder of the $17.5 million bond referendum will be spent on new siding at the Littlebrook and Riverside elementary schools; skylight, fascia and gutter repairs at the Johnson Park School; and repairs to deteriorating masonry on the tower over the main entrance to Princeton High School.

Outdated rooftop HVAC (heating ventilation and air conditioning) units will be replaced at all six schools.

If the district did not ask for voter approval for the bond referendum, it would continue to make emergency repairs and pay for custodial overtime, school district officials said. Classroom space is lost to leaking roofs and problems related to outdated HVAC equipment.

While voters will be asked to approve a $17.5 million bond referendum, the State of New Jersey will pick up 34% of the tab in new debt service aid, school district officials said. This means the State of New Jersey will reimburse the school district for 34% of the principal and interest payments that it incurs.

Acknowledging that debt service for the referendum – if it is approved – will be added to a property owner’s tax bill, school district officials said they expect to “level out” the impact by adding the new debt to the debt service levy as older debt is paid off.

The school district property tax levy includes money for the general operating budget and money to cover debt service for current bond referendums. For a house assessed at the town average of $838,822, the property owner’s overall school district tax bill for 2021-2022 included $790.59 in debt service.

As existing debt is paid off and new debt from the 2022 bond referendum is added, the debt service portion of the 2022-2023 school district property tax bill is expected to go down from $790.59 to $447.76.

On the 2023-2024 school district property tax bill, the debt service is expected to be reduced to $436.66 – even as new debt is added. By 2024-2025, it will go down to $235.62 as the debt from previous bond referendums is paid off and the new debt is added.

Beth Behrend, the school board president, thanked the administration for its work on the proposed bond referendum.

“I can’t get it out of my head – the pictures of buckets and trash cans at Princeton High School every time it rains,” Behrend said.

School board member Brian McDonald said that while he appreciates Dart’s concern – Dart cast one of two dissenting votes – it is “critical” to the health and safety of the students to have teaching spaces that are tight and dry.

If the district delays action, it will have to continue to make repairs – with no help from the State of New Jersey, McDonald said.