Judgment day in WW-P school district

$27.5 million renovation and upgrade plan goes before voters on Tuesday

By: Emily Craighead
   Voters will decide Tuesday if they want the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District to proceed with $27.5 million in facilities renovations and upgrades.
   The culmination of a facilities review process that began in the summer of 2004, the facilities referendum includes a $25.2 million base question for projects at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South and North, and Wicoff, Maurice Hawk and Dutch Neck elementary schools. Nearly $19 million will go to High School South, built in 1973.
   A second question, if approved, would allow the district to bond for $2.3 million to install artificial-turf fields at both high schools. If the base question is defeated, the second question becomes moot, regardless of the vote.
   Four of the schools in question are the oldest in the district, and proponents say the projects are necessary to keep up with growing enrollment and increasingly demanding state curriculum requirements, while maintaining the district’s reputation for excellence.
   "It’s no secret people have moved here because of the schools," said Diane Hasling of the Citizens Referendum Team, a group that has campaigned in support of the referendum.
   Meanwhile, opponents describe some referendum projects, such as the auditorium and gymnasium at High School South, as frivolous, coming as property taxes continue to rise.
   "I believe things have to be done, especially in High School South," said Paul Pitluk, a board member of the Village Grande Civic Association. However, he contends, "It is a cavalier way of spending money."
   The renovations at High School South include:
   • creation of five closed classroom spaces;
   • an auditorium with support spaces, lobby area, bathrooms and scenery construction shop;
   • renovations to music classrooms, performing-arts classrooms and spaces;
   • a gymnasium and auxiliary gymnasium with indoor and outdoor storage, separate gym lobby with bathrooms, accessible from indoors and outdoors;
   • a new trainer’s room, weight room and office for the athletic director;
   • an outdoor pool enclosure;
   • additional partition walls for open classrooms;
   • renovations to locker rooms, coaches’ offices and instructors’ offices;
   • expansion and renovation of parking lots; and
   • modernization of handicap accessibility.
   "We have an excellent educational program, but we need to make it even better and this referendum will allow us to do that," Principal Charles Rudnick said in a video the district produced for the local cable channel.
   A tour through High School South illustrates conditions where school officials say only 650 of the school’s 1,600 students can be in the gymnasium at once for assemblies. They also pointed to other problems: The orchestra no longer fits on the stage in the theater. The darkroom is inadequate for the number of students enrolled in photography classes. More closed classroom spaces are needed. The weight room has good equipment, but the room is cramped. Physical education classes usually have 35 students at a time because there are not enough activities spaces.
   "Staff at many of our older buildings have done an admirable job of making due," Ms. Hasling said.
   At Dutch Neck Elementary School, which dates back to 1917, $4.11 million in projects are on the table. Those projects are a six-classroom addition, including two dividable rooms, renovations to small group room instructional spaces, and renovations to the ventilation system in the main building and in the modular classroom addition.
   Wicoff Elementary School, which dates back to 1919, would receive renovations to second-floor classrooms and the modular classroom addition ventilation system at a cost of $663,761.
   Maurice Hawk Elementary School, built in 1964, is slated for $1.04 million in projects including renovations for English as a second language and speech classrooms, a teachers’ workroom and the guidance area. Renovations would also be made to the modular classroom addition, with replacement of the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system.
   At High School North, built in 1997, about $400,000 would be used to create laboratory space in existing classrooms.
   The artificial turf fields in the $2.3 million second question are being proposed as a way to get better use out of the athletic fields, making them available to varsity teams as well as physical education classes and community events.
   If the referendum is approved, it will have no impact on school taxes, according to district officials. New bonds would be issued as old bonds are retired, keeping the debt-service portion of the budget at its current level.
   Debt-service taxes would decrease if the referendum is not approved — by about $64 to $111 for a home in Plainsboro or West Windsor, respectively, at last year’s annual average assessed values — $395,000 in Plainsboro and $239,000 in West Windsor.
   Annually, the district budget includes between $1 million and $2 million for capital improvements — enough for security, technology and parking lot repaving needs, but not enough for a larger projects, district officials have said.
   District administrators, working with the Facilities and Administration Committee, selected the projects to include in the referendum based on student safety and health, usable life being consistent with bonded debt, enrollment projections and instructional space improvements needed to sustain core programs.
   The district is expecting about $6.9 million in state aid, either in the form of grants or debt-service aid.
   While the timing is fortunate for the district and in the eyes of many taxpayers, other residents object to the referendum’s impact in the context of West Windsor’s revaluation and statewide rising property taxes.
   "It just feels like very faulty timing," said Martin Bernstein, who is co-chairman of the Village Grande Civic Association’s Education Committee. Breaking with a recent trend of publicly supporting school district budgets, the civic association as a group has remained silent on the referendum because of disagreements among members over whether to support it.
   Obtaining the state’s commitment to help fund the projects before state aid for school construction projects ran out was a significant consideration in scheduling the referendum vote. Also, Tuesday is one of the five school election dates allowed under state law.
   "We could lose the chance of potential state aid if we wait," Ms. Hasling said.
   Statewide, support for bond referendum proposals dropped in 2005, reflecting voter uncertainty over state support for school construction projects, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association.
   However, local attitudes toward education usually determine whether a referendum will succeed, and according to Frank Belluscio of the NJSBA, "There’s always been strong support for the schools" in West Windsor.
   Voters are generally receptive of projects needed to accommodate growing enrollment and to keep school facilities on par with other districts, Mr. Belluscio said. A referendum is generally more likely to succeed if the direct educational benefit is apparent.
   Polls in both townships are open between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.