Princeton residents may be asked to fund improvements to the local school district.

The Princeton School District is considering the possibility of a $67.9 million referendum this year to fund upgrades to facilities around the district — including a possible community center.

If it is put on the ballot, the referendum would include two questions. The first is a request for $53.3 million to update existing school facilities. The second question would ask to fund a $14.6 million community center attached to the high school.

Assuming both questions were placed on the ballot and passed, the average home valued at $175,000 would see an increase in annual taxes of $197, according to the presentation.

The district has been working on the project for around two years. It was intended to go on the ballot last year, but the pandemic knocked it off track.

The current question is a follow-up to a previous referendum passed in May 2014. At that time the district decided it could not go over about $30 million. The board prioritized projects and cut it off under that line, according to Superintendent Ben Barton.

“Everything that was below the line back then is pretty much what’s in this proposal right now,” Barton said.

One of the major pieces would be renovations to the original high school building, which would add space to classrooms, hallways and other facilities.

The project also would include new shop areas — replacing the 50-year-old pole sheds they are currently in — as well as renovations to special education facilities, modifications to athletics facilities including locker rooms and other improvements.

The high school portion is estimated to cost almost $40 million. The intermediate school would also see over $7 million in renovations and the rest would go toward the student services building, technology, equipment and other updates.

Facility challenges

During a May 12 meeting with the public, Vaughn Dierks with Wold Architects and Engineers explained the process for how the district identified facility needs. That included examining the available educational spaces in the district.

“What we did was we looked at space-by-space the types of educational spaces within each of the buildings and said ‘are they above or below state standards?’” Dierks said.

During the community meeting the district presented a breakdown of the school’s facilities compared to state guidelines. In the high school about 25 of the 48 facilities examined were considered too small. That included regular classrooms as well as fitness space, music, art and computer classrooms.

“The classrooms are too small, they’re much smaller than the state recommendations, the hallways are too small,” Barton said during a later phone call.

In the intermediate school the study found several spaces did not meet guidelines including the gymnasium, cafeteria and classrooms for music, science and computer education. All of the rooms examined in the middle school appear to have met or exceeded state guidelines, according to the presentation.

The district had looked at a new high school, but the option was considered cost prohibitive. Along with the money the district has already sunk into the current high school, finding just the land for the building is a challenge, according to Dierks.

Barton also addressed calls for a new high school. He estimated the cost of building an entirely new school would be between $125 million and $150 million or more.

“What we’re doing is we’re asking to reinvest in what we already have so they can meet the needs of our in our community for the next 50-75 years,” Barton said.

Near the end of 2020 the district hosted a survey to determine support for the project in the community. Approximately two-thirds of residents in the district approved of the district’s performance at that time, according to Dierks.

The survey found community members were in favor of education-related projects such as improvements to the media center, which 61% of respondents supported, and increasing classroom size, which garnered 79% of respondents supporting it. Additionally respondents’ concerns about raising taxes were about 10% less than the state average, according to Dierks.

“So people have an understanding that there’s serious issues to deal with at the buildings — especially with the high school,” Vaughn said.

Athletics facilities had fewer, but still a majority, of respondents supporting them. About 51% of respondents supported constructing a field house, according to the presentation.

The community center question

If there is enough support for it, the district may also add a new community center to the high school. The facility would consist of a field house, with space for multiple indoor basketball courts, a walking track and meeting rooms. The facility would maintain a separate community entry to prevent residents from having to move through the high school during the school day.

The additional space also could make room for gymnastics, weightlifting and other fitness programming that does not currently have dedicated space in the gyms, according to the presentation.

When asked at the May 12 meeting, Dierks explained that it is becoming more common to see schools discussing community centers, but he’s also seen similar conversations around amenities like performing arts centers and pools.

One resident asked if the new facility could drive growth in Princeton. Dierks said he did not have the data to show one way or another, but he suspects that additional amenity of a community center could help attract residents.

Whether or not the community center would drive growth, more businesses and residents in the Princeton School District — which includes some nearby townships — would drive down the tax burden.

“Every time we bring in new businesses and new housing into our area, that broadens the tax base,” Barton said.

As the tax base broadens, the tax burden for this facility would decrease, according to Barton.

The current proposals shown at the community meeting are not necessarily the final design, though the facility will likely be in that area and around that size, according to Barton. Assuming the project gets on the ballot and passes, the district will be able to begin the design process.

The district is discussing partnerships with the city and other potential partners to help meet the needs for running the facility, though the construction itself will likely come entirely from the referendum.

“Where our biggest desire to partner with other entities is just the ongoing operation of the facility,” Barton said.

The board is expected to discuss the referendum at its June 15 meeting to further delve into unanswered questions. The referendum is likely to be voted on during the board’s July meeting.

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