Board of Education tackles plan for rapid student growth

The Sept. 27 Board of Education meeting brought about further dialogue about one of the public school system’s heaviest weights: the rapid growth of its student body. From last year alone, the district has seen an increase of 163 students – with John Witherspoon Middle School and Community Park Elementary School having the heaviest hits.

According to Superintendent Steve Cochrane, who presented updated data since his report at the meeting on the cusp of the new school year, 105 of the 163 new students are from three new developments: AvalonBay, about 10 percent of which is occupied, Copperwood and Merwick-Stanworth, Princeton University housing that has only one-third of its capacity occupied.

“So, this could go as far as having 200 to 225 new students when these developments are full,” Board Vice President Pat Sullivan said.

The district is working to complete a long-term plan, which would be implemented in approximately four years.

Dina Shaw, parent to two PPS sixth graders and one high school freshman who is also co-president of the JWMS Parent Teacher Organization, came to the podium to question a more immediate plan for the influx of students.

“Some classes at JW have up to 27 students in them,” Shaw said in distress. “I can tell you I did not move to Princeton to have classes of that size, and I can tell you I am not alone in that sentiment.”

Shaw voiced there has been growing concerns among PTO members, but the realization of how significantly classes have increased has not yet reached all parents. Discussion of plausible solutions within parent groups have included removing Cranbury from the school district, though it pays to attend, or demanding tax from Princeton University or the Institute for Advanced Study, both of which have high numbers of faculty or students’ children attending PPS.

“Neither the university or the institute pay the schools, yet we have a large number of their children being educated,” Shaw said. “I realize the university gives money to the township, but that does not pay our bills. It doesn’t pay for teachers; it doesn’t pay for buildings. I’d like to know what our plan is to get them to pay their fair share. Fair is fair.”

Cochrane first addressed the long-term plan that, once in place, will allow the district to gain state approval for short-term solutions. The facilities committee will soon be proposing a referendum for the board to approve architects for capacity studies and needs analyses. Once data has been collected and a plan drafted, the district will approach the state and ask for remedies to keep Princeton’s educational philosophies in line regardless of its rapid growth.

“Those are the driving issues for this year and for looking at our next year plan,” Cochrane said. “Some of it will be more teachers, and some of it will be finding new space.”

Luckily, JW has extra space that could be used for new classrooms if additional teachers were hired. Other options for interim expansion include building trailers or, as Cochrane noted euphemistically, “cottages,” and renting nearby space.

When Shaw expressed concern of taxes soaring, Board President Andrea Spalla affirmed it would not “be a sudden spike,” and that bonds from previous years would be rolled over to cover expansion costs as much as possible.

At this point, Princeton University pays a sum to the municipality in lieu of taxes, but Cochrane said this may be something they look at, and the board will work with the town to create the best solution for the high population of students on a short- and long-term basis.

In other news:

• The board, alongside Princeton Teachers Union co-presidents, released a statement in opposition to the state Department of Education’s recent implementation of students’ standardized test scores baring 30 percent more weight in teacher evaluations. The statement is available on the homepage.

• The superintendent outlined the Merit Goals achieved for the 2015-2016 school year and the Merit Goals for the current school year. Upcoming goals include a review of service learning for grades K through 12, working to enhance cultural responsiveness and empathy with the creation of programs such as a Council of Diversity and Outreach, and revising administrator evaluation instruments and protocols.

Some of the achieved Merit Goals from last year include Homework 2.0, which led to designated “Homework Free Weekends” for high school students, and Athletics 2.0, which led to this year’s implementation of Option II for athletes using gym as a free period to relieve stress load.

• The board recognized the following retirees: Christophe Auleus, custodian, Riverside Elementary, after 25 years of service, effective Feb. 1; and Diane Lefenfeld, grade five, Johnson Park Elementary, after 22 years of service, effective July 1. The board thanked Auleus and Lefenfeld for their efforts on behalf of students, parents, staff and community members over their years of service in the district.

• Spalla and Cochrane addressed the school, the community and the parents, friends and peers of Owen Bardzilowski for the unbelievable togetherness and support fostered in the days and weeks following Bardzilowski’s passing. They thanked the teachers, administrators, outside organizations and all individuals who worked to help those in need and honored the Bardzilowski family for their openness to create a dialogue for other children and people suffering similarly to Owen.

• Cochrane reminded the board of Homecoming Weekend Oct. 12 through 14 and encouraged all parents and students to attend to lift the spirits and contribute to the joy of PHS students.


About Erica Chayes Wida

Erica Chayes Wida is a writer, mom, and complete zealot when it comes to poetry, paella and globe collections. After graduating with a degree in Anthropology from UCLA, Erica moved to Italy where the seasons and old architecture inspired her journey back to the East Coast. Since then, she and her husband have created a nest egg locally and, over time, developed a rather grand love affair with the town of Princeton. Erica is senior editor at The Princeton Sun and enjoys fulfilling her Princeton affections on a daily basis. | View all posts by Erica Chayes Wida