Buoyed by positive results from a recent community survey, Princeton school officials regrouped Tuesday, Feb. 9 on the possibility of reviving a bond referendum that was delayed last spring when the coronavirus pandemic hit.
The $48.5 million referendum in support of school facilities improvements was initially intentioned for a special ballot in May 2020. School board members halted it out of concerns stemming from the pandemic but made clear at the time they still viewed the project as necessary.
Now, officials are saying the time might be right with competitive bidding driving construction costs lower and interest rates proving favorable.
The new referendum would build off a larger project begun more than a decade ago and which culminated in 2013 when voters sanctioned $29.5 million for the construction of Princeton Primary School. The priority now is on improvements at the high school, with $38 million intended for everything from HVAC and classroom sizes to athletics and Special Ed renovations.
“We knew that when we started the process this time that the high school was going to be the primary focus,” said Vaughn Dierks, CEO of St. Paul-based Wold Architects and also a former Princeton High graduate. “It had the most issues that were unresolved last time around, it had been a long time since there were investments in it.” Dierks said that the repairs made at the high school several years ago were just short of stop-gap measures and that absolute needs were still unresolved.
Officials made it clear Feb. 9 that they are not seeking to build a new high school but instead to renovate the existing building, the core of which hasn’t seen improvements since the mid-1980s.
School board members, in authorizing the referendum, “would be making the commitment that this is where our high school is going to be for the next 50-75 years,” said Ben Barton, Princeton superintendent.
The largest portion of the project could see an estimated $12 million investment in that core that would widen hallways and right-size classrooms currently standing at just two-thirds of what state recommendations prescribe.
That part of the project has also fared well with taxpayers, recent survey results show: 79 percent had indicated they were supportive of a property tax increase that resolved the tight corridors and cramped classrooms (see Jan. 28 Union-Times article, “Princeton education leaders review survey.”)
The current project also asks for about $15.5 million for new shop areas, Special Ed renovations and an expansion to the existing kitchen, along with more general site improvements.
Another $10.5 million would likely be leveraged for athletics and activities infrastructure, including expansion of the weight room and relocation of locker rooms now housed in the basement, far from the high school gymnasium.
Officials were still uncertain last week whether to put any dollars toward a field house, an option that has gained some support with taxpayers but support that Dierks cautioned was “by no means a mandate,” referencing the relatively tepid 51 percent approval that option had received from the public survey.
Dierks also noted that while that survey showed there was “an awareness” for improvements to the district’s athletic facilities, all of those improvements lacked the “overwhelming support” given to more academic-based improvements. Survey results show that no athletic projects currently on the table had garnered more than 55 percent approval.
Superintendent Barton, along with Dierks, expressed confidence in the referendum as a whole should the school board choose to move ahead with it.
Officials balanced the pros and cons of different referendum dates, including one as early as May this year, although that date would require the school board to meet a turn-around of just one week in getting the ballot question submitted to the state by end of the month.
Consensus last Tuesday was that putting the question to voters this year was ideal in order to capitalize on favorable interest rates and what is currently a highly competitve market for non-residential construction.
“These projects aren’t just for here and now, this is for generations to come,” said Barton. “Our schools are the heartbeat of our community and largely the identity of overall community—when people in other towns think about Princeton, they’re going to be thinking about our schools.”
Board members were scheduled to hear administrators’ recommendation this week, on Feb. 16; that meeting took place after Union-Times went to press.