‘We just can’t have it all’

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Princeton Schools Board of Education adopts 2023-24 budget with tax rate increase

Princeton property owners will see a three-cent increase in the school district property tax rate, based on the $106.2 million budget for 2023-24.

The Princeton Schools Board of Education approved the new spending plan by a 9-1 vote at its April 25 meeting. School board member Jean Durbin voted “no.”

The school district property tax rate will increase from $1.20 per $100 of assessed value to $1.23. The owner of a house assessed at the town average of $844,787 will pay $10,452.43 in school district property taxes, or $329.97 more than last year.

A Princeton property owner’s tax bill includes the school district property tax, the municipal property tax, municipal library and open space taxes, and Mercer County property and open space taxes.

Schools Business Administrator Matthew Bouldin said the property tax rate increase resulted from a combination of inflationary pressures and a 1.9% drop in the town’s ratable base. The drop in ratables means the tax levy is shared across a smaller base, he said.

“We experienced a lot of inflation pressure. Extreme wage pressure put acute pressure on the budget. The salary growth was significant,” Bouldin said.

Salaries and benefits increased by $5.9 million – from $75 million to $80.9 million. Salaries and benefits accounted for 75% of spending in the prior year’s operating budget.

Among the other cost drivers in the budget, transportation costs increased by $618,365. Transportation was budgeted at $2.4 million in the 2022-23 budget, and at $3 million in the newly adopted budget.

The budget also earmarks $7.5 million in tuition for the Princeton Charter School, compared to $7.3 million in the 2022-23 budget. Support for the Princeton Charter School increased by $233,572.

On the revenue side, property taxes account for most of the school district’s revenue. The amount to be raised by taxes will increase from $86.7 million to $89.2 million, to include debt service.

There are other sources of revenue, however.

The school district will receive $5.3 million in state aid, which is a 9.9% increase over the $4.8 million it received in the 2022-23 budget. The district also will apply $3.2 million from its fund balance, or surplus, as a source of revenue.

The school district will receive $2.7 million in a voluntary contribution from Princeton University.

The budget also includes $5.2 million in tuition from the Cranbury School District, which sends its high school students to Princeton High School because it does not have its own high school. It currently sends 230 students to Princeton High School.

School board member Deborah Bronfeld said she would vote for the budget, but she was “struggling” with what is being asked of the taxpayers.

Bronfeld said she would like to do some cost-cutting, but acknowledged that salaries and health benefits account for 85% of the budget. She suggested that the school board could look into cost-saving measures.

“We just can’t have it all,” Bronfeld said.

School board member Jean Durbin said she was voting against the budget because the 2.9% tax rate increase exceeds the state-imposed 2% cap. Under certain circumstances, the 2% cap may be exceeded, such as for health insurance costs.

Durbin admitted that her “no” vote was symbolic. The school district is facing an “extraordinarily difficult structural deficit.” Fixed costs are rising, but school district officials are constrained by the lack of full funding for school districts by New Jersey, she said.

She encouraged school district officials to work to secure full funding for New Jersey school districts, and to think creatively about how the district would find other sources of revenue.