School board to decide on expansion plan Monday

An extensive $62.4 million expansion plan presented to the East Windsor Regional Board of Education Tuesday will be up for a vote of the board Monday night.

By: T.J. Furman
   The East Windsor Regional Board of Education is expected to make a final decision on exactly how it wants to expand its schools Monday night — a move that may increase taxes an average of almost 23 cents per $100 of assessed value for local property owners.
   The board and about 20 residents heard information from several members of the Project Referendum task force and its architect, Scott Prisco of The Prisco Group, Tuesday night in the Hightstown High School cafeteria. The board decided it would take action on the matter at its meeting Monday in the high school’s 700 wing.
   The plan presented this week calls for almost $62.4 million in additions and renovations to all six schools. The district’s share of that amount, after anticipated state aid, would be slightly more than $43.1 million. The plans are comprised of 194,901 square feet of additions and 135,828 square feet of renovated space.
   Original estimates in January said the project would cost the district approximately $48 million.
   "I believe that what we’ve accomplished is a plan for six modern facilities that meet the current needs of our students … and we’ve done it efficiently, but not cheaply," board President Bruce Ettman said after the presentations. "I think the benefits to the students and the compensatory benefits to the community will be well worth it."
   If approved, the board will seek voter approval for the plan in a public referendum Sept. 24.
   Business Administrator David Shafter gave an overview of his estimates of the tax impact of the proposal, saying the average tax rate increase could fall between 18.16 cents and 22.89 cents. That translates to a tax increase of between $181.60 and $228.90 per $100,000 of assessed property value.
   The tax rates depend on many factors, Mr. Shafter said, including the interest rate at the time the bonds are issued (likely not until a year after the referendum passes) and the length of time over which the money is paid back. Also, the inclusion of a $1.3 million auditorium at the Melvin H. Kreps Middle School would impact the rate as well.
   Mr. Shafter did not have a breakdown of what the tax rate would be in Hightstown compared to East Windsor.
   "There’s no point to divide between the communities at this point because it changes every year," Mr. Shafter explained.
   The expansion projects, if completed, would expand the district’s state-calculated student capacity from its current total of 4,401 to 5,727, according to Joseph Vasta of The Prisco Group.
   According to numbers prepared by Mr. Shafter, the district expects its student population to jump from about 4,800 this year to just over 5,700 in the 2006-2007 school year.
   Chief School Administrator David Witmer does not expect the student population to expand much after 2007.
   "After that we believe it’s going to level off," he said in an interview Thursday, "primarily because there’s not going to be any housing coming along after that."
   East Windsor Mayor Janice Mironov has previously said that, aside from age-restricted homes, it is unlikely any housing developments not already in the approval process will be built in the township because of a lack of appropriately-zoned land and open-space preservation.
   There is little land available upon which to build in Hightstown, aside from a parcel in the northeast corner of the borough which is being eyed for senior housing.
   Under the expansion proposal, the Ethel McKnight School in Twin Rivers would be virtually reconstructed, with its prominent dome structure being demolished in favor of a new building with 29 classrooms plus several special education, small-group instruction, administration and music rooms at a cost of $12 million.
   The destruction of most of the current school would create room for more parking along Twin Rivers Drive.
   Mr. Prisco assured the board that no students would be displaced as a result of the decision to build a new McKnight School. The new structure would be completed before the demolition of the old one. An addition added several years ago to the school will remain intact.
   The Perry L. Drew School, also in Twin Rivers, would have an addition of 10 classrooms built, as well as renovations to open spaces and other areas in the school at a cost of $6.3 million.
   The Walter C. Black School would see the least amount of work under the plan. Renovations would be performed in three areas and two classrooms would be added for $1.8 million. Eugene Sarafin, a member of the architecture and finance committee for Project Referendum, told the board the original plans called for more work, but that the decision was made to make more extensive renovations to the Grace N. Rogers School, which is directly across Stockton Street from the Black School.
   New construction at the Rogers School would consist of 14 classrooms, a music room, a small- group instruction room and an addition to the cafeteria. The cost would be $6.8 million.
   The $15.6 million Kreps School plan calls for a two-story addition with 16 classrooms, an auditorium and a music room, as well as another addition of a classroom and gymnasium. If the auditorium is not built, then the gymnasium would also include a stage. Without the auditorium the work would cost $14.6 million.
   Board members discussed the possibility of separating the auditorium from the rest of the project and asking a separate question during the referendum. The auditorium project would receive no state aid.
   The district administration would move from the white house in front of the Rogers School to the high school’s 700 wing open space. Eleven new classrooms, three science labs, a music room and an addition of a food court onto the cafeteria would also be built. The high school work would cost $11.8 million.
   The total of the "soft costs" on the project — such as architect’s fees, the hiring of a construction manager, furniture and soil analysis — is estimated at $7.9 million.
   Dr. Witmer said the white house on Stockton Street would be maintained by the district for office space. The administration’s offices are currently scattered among the house, a trailer behind the Rogers School and the high school.
   Mr. Prisco and project manager Joseph Vasta suggested the board act on the plans as soon as possible in order to get some of the $2.6 billion earmarked by the state for aid on building projects for middle- and high-income districts. The money is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. More detailed plans are expected to be delivered to the district by today, Friday.
   If the plans are approved by the board Monday, Mr. Prisco said he and Mr. Vasta would hand-deliver them to the state Department of Education Tuesday morning for its approval. Up to 40 percent of what the Department of Education considers "eligible costs" can be reimbursed by the state.