A rough road lies ahead for local schools


By: Packet Editorial
   It’s still nine months away, but already the 2004-2005 school year is shaping up as a challenging one for area districts. And that may be putting it mildly.
   The main challenge for the Princeton Regional School District will be to attend simultaneously to the educational needs of its students and the physical needs of its facilities, in particular Princeton High School. The impact of the $81.3 million renovation and expansion program has been felt keenly this year at the four elementary schools and the John Witherspoon Middle School, but by far the most extensive renovations — and therefore the biggest headaches — await administrators, staff and students at PHS.
   Already, the sounds, sights and inconveniences of construction are being visited on the high school grounds. The tennis courts are torn up; the main parking lot is being converted to a staging area for construction equipment; teachers who used to park right next to the high school have to walk across Walnut Lane from the remote John Witherspoon lot; students who drive to school are racing out of the building every two hours to avoid a $22 parking ticket on surrounding streets.
   And it’s only going to get worse. As construction work reaches into the school building itself, the disruptions will multiply. More classrooms will be removed to trailers; the disconcerting drone of backhoes and bulldozers in the fields will give way to the staccato of jackhammers and drills in the hallways. Meanwhile, the cost of the building program — already behind schedule and draining contingency funds — will almost certainly continue to rise, rendering many of the structural improvements planned for PHS unaffordable.
   Montgomery has tried to avoid similar disarray by delaying the opening of its new high school until the 2005-2006 school year. But the consequence of that decision will be severe overcrowding in 2004-2005 in the old high school (which must now wait another year to be converted to an upper middle school), with the predictable trickle-down effect being felt in the middle and elementary schools. This will mean trailers — and lots of them — to accommodate the overflow of students not only at MHS but at the middle school as well.
   West Windsor-Plainsboro is out of construction mode — for the moment — but as families start moving into Toll Brothers’ Estates at Princeton Junction, the building hiatus may be short-lived. Meanwhile, resolving the enrollment disparity between the two high schools, which could worsen with the sudden population boom along Bear Brook Road, will be an especially sticky problem.
   Beyond each district’s difficulties related to construction, enrollment and overcrowding, there looms a much more sinister scenario — the prospect of coping with an already problem-plagued 2004-2005 school year with little or no increase in state aid. The McGreevey administration, facing yet another budget crisis, has made it clear that aid to the state’s more affluent school districts (a category in which Princeton, Montgomery and West Windsor-Plainsboro plainly fall) will likely remain flat — or, at best, rise by about 1 percent.
   This leaves many districts, especially those facing enrollment growth, between a rock and a hard place. Even if they slash programs (and staff) right down to the bone, they may still have no choice but to increase property taxes. We are struck, even at this early stage, by the distinct possibility that all three of our local districts will put a second question on the ballot in the spring asking voters for authority to exceed their state-imposed budget caps — and raise property taxes even higher — for the 2004-2005 school year.
   Nobody wants this to happen, of course, but the fiscal facts of life may leave school officials with no choice. As they get deeper into their budget preparations, homeowners would be well advised to brace themselves for a sobering bottom line.