What Other Improvement Options Were Considered?
The district carefully studied a broad range of approaches to add space to our schools and to make needed upgrades before settling on the proposed plan. These alternatives would result in higher costs, greater impact on district organization and facilities, and adversely impact fields and parking areas in use around various buildings.
Construct a 5/6 School on the Thanet site: Where to construct the new 5/6 school considered a variety of different site locations prior to the decision to place the school at the existing Valley Road location. This included consideration of the Thanet site being acquired to house district administration. While the Thanet site is slightly larger, its location, shape, features (some wetland areas), and sloped areas are less adaptable to the large footprint required by a school building. These factors do not pose issues for the district administration use.
Construct a new elementary or expand the existing elementary schools: Construction of additions at the various elementary schools and the construction of a new elementary school were also considered for both K-5 and K-6 alignments. The existing school sites offer limited and varied expansion possibilities, and additions would adversely impact play and parking areas at each elementary school site. Both approaches would result in redistricting away from the current neighborhood school model that has been in place in Princeton for decades, and expansions would still be needed at the middle school level. To consider a K-6 alignment, expansions of the elementary buildings would not be limited to classrooms but would need to include additional core space, such as the cafeterias, as well as additional science and specialized instruction space. The cost of expanding the elementary schools to incorporate sixth grade was estimated to be approximately $63 million or about $10 million more than the combined cost of building a new 5/6 school and relocating administration and transportation to the Thanet site. While there would be some savings in operating costs by not opening a new school, any savings would be partially offset by having to double the number of sixth grade teachers to address departmentalized learning in four different buildings. In addition, placing sixth graders back into the elementary schools was not considered an optimal learning or social structure.
Two grade 5-8 middle schools: Creating a new 5-8 or 6-8 school while maintaining John Witherspoon Middle School as a 5-8 or 6-8 school. The approach would create equity issues with half of the students attending a new school and half attending JW. To address the equity concern by making the two middle schools similar in feel and function, substantial renovations and upgrades at JW would be necessary, which would increase costs. This approach would also divide students in the district between two schools during the middle grades, and some neighborhoods may be split between the two attendance zones.
Expand on the JW MS site: The amount of expansion needed to provide for the projected 6-8 or 5-8 enrollments on the JW site would not be possible without the elimination of fields and a reduction in parking. As a district, we are already extremely limited in our spaces for athletic fields and parking. Eliminating fields and reducing parking at JW would create even greater shortages. In addition to adding classroom space, we would also need to expand core spaces to accommodate the number of students that are projected. This would include expanding the library, cafeteria, gymnasium spaces, and other common space. This approach would result in a very large school on a campus which is not suitable for a facility of that size. Finally, a large middle school of a 1000 – 1200 students is less conducive to ensuring that “every child is known” and creating the type of learning environment in which pre-adolescent students can thrive.
Expansion of the high school through an external addition: Simply adding new wings on the high school was considered in various ways. This approach would result in a mixture of new and existing classroom spaces, so some classes and some students would benefit from the new space and others less so. The high school site is already built-out so making room for new external additions would result in the loss of fields and substantial parking. Costs would not be less for an external addition compared to the current courtyard infill design, and, since parking is already an issue at the school, costs could even be higher if additional land for parking or construction of a parking garage were undertaken to replace lost space for parking. The purchase of the adjacent Westminster Campus was also considered including the submission of a formal proposal which was not accepted by the owner of the property.
Alternate locations for a new school: Over the last several years the district worked with the municipality to identify and investigate over a dozen locations. This included consideration of purchase offers on multiple properties prior to the pursuit of the currently targeted property. While each site offered positive and negatives for consideration, the current site provided the best overall opportunity for the district both today and long term.
Why Undertake These Improvements Now?
Our schools have been operating over capacity for a number of years. The enrollment has reached a critical point at the middle school and high school, where enrollments exceed educational capacity by 101 and 190 students respectively. Enrollment district-wide has grown 10% in the past five years and is projected to continue growing at all levels, potentially reaching levels up to 1,500 students over capacity in the next 10 years.
Some of the upgrades will address conditions which, if left alone, could result in the deterioration of our school buildings, particularly with mechanical systems and roofing. We also need to update our security at each school. When our schools were originally constructed, they did not include the safety measures that are considered standard today.
Financially, time is of the essence. Financing costs currently remain low, but interest rates are expected to rise. By locking in debt from the referendum at a low interest rate, we will be able to reduce the burden on taxpayers. Additionally, State Share debt service funding is currently available. State Share debt service funding reduces the costs to local taxpayers, but can only be claimed by the district if the referendum is approved by voters.
Why Renovate PHS Rather Than Building An Addition?
Renovating PHS is 1) more cost-efficient, and 2) better utilizes space.
By reclaiming the various courtyards that have been created during previous expansions of PHS, the district will be able to add 32.2k of useable square feet, which will be cheaper than building an addition of equal square footage. Additionally, there is a higher grant incentive from the state for renovations vs. new construction, which will reduce the cost to taxpayers.
Renovating the courtyards and spaces already used within the high school will allow us to create highly usable flexible learning spaces. These spaces will have desks, tables, chairs, and walls that are all easily rearranged, allowing for more student collaboration, small and large group instruction, and additional learning scenarios. Plus, by renovating space throughout the high school, all students will benefit – not just those with classes in a new addition.
How Will Renovating Princeton High School Improve The Space As Well As Increase Capacity?
The current building has a substantial amount of area dedicated to space that can only be used for circulation. These narrow, dark corridors, are packed with students during the day and are really too crowded to enable easy passage from wing to wing between classes. Infilling the courtyards will add classrooms and multi-use teaching/learning space to the building while also providing more open, broader, and day-lit circulation space. This will significantly increase the amount of usable space in the building. Previous space used only for circulation can now contribute to delivery of educational, eating, informal learning and other uses as well as circulation.
Why Build A New 5/6 School? Why Not Just Expand The Existing Elementary Schools And JW?
A 5/6 School makes sense both practically and educationally. From a practical standpoint, the building of a 5/6 school immediately frees up space at all four elementary schools as well as the middle school without having to build additions at each of those other sites. Five separate additions would be more expensive, and at JW we would not only have to add classroom space for 300 more students but also expand core spaces such as the gym and cafeteria. Educationally, a 5/6 school allows us to better meet the unique needs of pre-adolescents. The experience of an elementary school is continued for students even as they get opportunities to explore the exciting elective opportunities typically associated with a middle school. Developmentally, fifth and sixth graders are in similar places - intellectually, socially, and physically. Students share learning experiences across grade levels, play well together at recess, and have far fewer incidents of conflict or bullying. A 5/6 school allows us to extend childhood while appropriately challenging students to learn and grow.