School expansion impact concerns borough officials

Bond rating and tax increase are cited.

By: Jeff Milgram
   It may be too early to call it opposition but some "concerns" are being raised about the cost of the $74.2 million Princeton Regional Board of Education’s school renovation and expansion project, according to Princeton Borough Councilman David Goldfarb.
   And the school board might hear some of those concerns tonight at a special board meeting at the John Witherspoon School.
   School board President Charlotte Bialek said she hopes people won’t oppose the project before they learn what it contains.
   Board members met recently with several Princeton Borough Council representatives, including Mr. Goldfarb, who said it was conducted without a council quorum.
   "It was clear that we need to communicate," Ms. Bialek said of the meeting.
   She said budgetary decisions by the school board, the borough and Princeton Township "will have an impact on the other two."
   Mr. Goldfarb said he is concerned about the tax impact of the bond referendum that would pay for the construction and how it might affect the borough’s bond rating and its ability to borrow money for future projects. He also said a tax increase that results from the referendum, as now planned, could force some residents to leave the borough.
   He said there has been informal discussion with some borough merchants about the referendum, which is tentatively scheduled for April 17, but "there is no organization per se" against the project.
   "This is something that is so significant to the future of Princeton," Mr. Goldfarb said.
   He said the school board has heard from community groups but "they hadn’t heard from people who were concerned about the impact on taxpayers."
   He said the wellness center at the Witherspoon School, the site of a planned indoor pool, and "the massive reconstruction at Princeton High School" might not be necessary.
   He suggested that part of the project be placed before voters in a second question.
   "Can the needs of the school system be met in ways that are significantly less expensive?" Mr. Goldfarb asked. "I suspect the answer is yes."
   He said the Hillier Group, the board’s architect, "has not been given the message to keep costs as low as possible."
   When asked, Mr. Goldfarb said his comments are not reflective of a Borough Council position on the referendum.
   "I don’t generally distinguish my role as a borough councilman and a private citizen," he said.
   Another borough councilman, Roger Martindell, said the board is asking the public to approve a "huge bond issue."
   "The school board needs to make the case to the community that we can afford the project as proposed," said Mr. Martindell, who is the council’s liaison to the school board. "And I look forward to hearing their case."
   Both Mr. Goldfarb and Mr. Martindell said they would attend tonight’s board meeting, at which time the board is expected to approve the educational specifications for the expansion project.
   So far, the board has successfully dealt with opposition from residents of the Princeton High School neighborhood, who objected to one building option, later eliminated, which would have seen the construction of a new middle school next to PHS.
   In addition, the board also dealt with criticism of the district’s receiving relationship with Cranbury. About 171 Cranbury students attend PHS under a contract that brings Princeton Regional some $1.5 million a year.
   For her part, Ms. Bialek welcomes the borough participation in the discussion of the expansion project. But, she said, "It’s too premature" to make a judgment on the price without understanding the details of the expansion.
   "I’m hoping to cut it down a bit," Ms. Bialek said of the $74.2 ballpark figure.
   It also might be premature to discuss the tax impact, she said.
   "We expect the state will give us between 20 and 25 percent … so a $70 million bill may only be a $50 million bill," she said.