Following a smooth reorganization Monday night, the Board of Education is looking ahead to build on the accomplishments of the past year, while capitalizing on the skills and experience of its members to tackle the challenges ahead.
"We are a board of ten experienced and dedicated members, united in our passion for public education and our desire to continue to provide the students of Princeton with an education that equips them with knowledge, skills, perspectives and a love of learning that will set them on a path to lives of joy and purpose," said Beth Behrend, who will serve as Board President again this year, alongside newly-elected vice-president Michele Tuck-Ponder.
“We look forward in the year ahead to continuing to execute on our mission by improving student experience, strengthening our finances, and engaging the community in facilities master planning to develop a vision for our future,” she added.
In 2019 there were advances across the district that enhanced student achievement and experience, renewed key leadership positions, strengthened district finances, improved the condition and stewardship of facilities, and deepened relationships with community partners.
In terms of student achievement, the expansion of the district’s preschool program from 40 to 60 spaces, all of which are now State-funded, was one high point of the last year. This expansion now includes a dual language immersion Pre-K class for three-year-olds. The district also created a community-wide preschool task force to study preschool education and options in the community as a whole. PPS has also submitted a grant to further expand the free preschool program in 2020 and hopes to add an additional 15 spaces.
Another highlight for the board over the past year was the evolution of the Equity Committee, now a standing board committee, which held well-attended, monthly evening meetings to engage the community around issues of equity and inclusion. Chaired by Ms. Tuck-Ponder, the committee also established quarterly joint meetings with the Student Achievement Committee in order to align the work of the two committees and to focus the board's “equity lens.”
The Board oversaw the smooth transition of a number of key district leadership roles this year, welcoming a new Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, Business Administrator, Director of Plant and Operations and internal candidates to fill the roles of Principal and Assistant Principal at PHS.
The past year brought a strengthened financial position due to unexpected State aid, which permitted the restoration of depleted fund balance as well as the establishment of a modest maintenance reserve. The budget was balanced through a reduction of approximately 3% in personnel, allowing the board to focus on longstanding structural deficits caused by rising healthcare costs and other labor costs that, along with the Princeton Charter School expansion and rising enrollment, have created a challenging budgetary situation. The budget gap is further exacerbated by New Jersey's 2 percent tax levy cap for school operating expenses, which does not increase as new housing is built. As the Princeton community continues to grow, rising enrollments will continue to bring increasing challenges to the public schools due to this State-mandated disconnect between revenue and rising expenses.
Other financial highlights included the initiation of a shared services study with the municipality, careful evaluation and related reductions in recurring expenses and the development of a multi-year financial model.
Some of the most visible projects on the board’s plate last year involved the installation of air conditioning in the PHS gym and HVAC at Riverside Elementary, the first of several projects funded by the $26.9 million referendum approved in December of 2018. Under a new Director of Facilities, the district addressed existing facilities by initiating preventative maintenance programs and addressing visitor safety and security with a new visitor management system. Referendum project work will expand and continue in 2020 with renovations planned for Princeton High School and John Witherspoon and upgrades scheduled for the elementary schools.
An overarching theme for the board has been advocacy for the public schools through community engagement and collaboration. In 2019, the board held meetings with numerous community partners including Municipal leadership, members of Council, Princeton University, the Princeton Charter School, Sustainable Princeton, the Witherspoon Jackson Neighborhood Association and other local organizations. The board presented the budget to the Council and engaged municipal leaders on the issue of how zoning and development decisions impact the schools. The board also engaged and benefitted greatly from community “experts” who helped on committees studying enrollment trends and the “school impact” of residential growth.
The continued upward climb in enrollment and the need for more classrooms remain among the challenges facing the board in 2020. In September, the board retained Milone & MacBroom, a planning and consulting firm specializing in work with public school districts to validate enrollment growth and capacity data and to engage the community in a comprehensive facilities master planning project. The goal is to develop, with community input, multiple scenarios for consideration by the board. The first of several public forums with Milone & MacBroom, where the public can be informed and provide input, will be held Saturday, January 25 at Princeton High School at 9AM.
"As we begin a new year and a new decade as a Board and as a school district, I would ask us to continue to remember that our work is ultimately about building relationships," added Mr. Cochrane. "It is through building relationships with students that we help them achieve higher levels of joy, purpose and learning. It is through building relationships with our staff and our community that we can harness our collective wisdom to solve the large and small challenges that face our growing schools."
- District News