PRINCETON — The big question after the November election defeat of the Princeton Elementary School District’s $35 million referendum proposal was how the school board would proceed after losing by roughly 200 votes.
During Monday’s special meeting that included both “yes” and “no” voters who spoke to the board, Superintendent Tim Smith recommended the board “start over,” and school board members unanimously agreed.
Smith said it’s been a helpful experience to be able to speak to voters of different opinions and to hear precisely what they felt was good or bad about the project. He added that he works for voters both for and against the project, and that the district’s intent was to bring the best proposition to the community that it could.
“What I’ve heard from the board was a sincere intent to listen to what the 2,700 “no” voters believed, and it’s been helpful, but the bottom line is, we can’t have that conversation in such a short period of time,” Smith said.
He also said “nobody likes to start over,” but added there wasn’t enough time between the Nov. 6 and April 2 elections for the board to properly prepare for a new resolution by the Jan. 14 filing deadline.
“I think if we tried to push it forward and meet the resolution date of Jan. 14, it would be a false attempt to listen, a false effort, and I know that’s not what this board is about and what this board stands for,” he said.
Despite the wishes of some supporters to try again with the same plan, PES Board member Steve Bouslog later said it would be hypocritical to put the same referendum forward to voters. While wanting to include changes that would help achieve broader support from the community, he said the board would still need to listen to the “yes” voters, as well.
Board member Terry O’Neill reiterated that from the beginning he’s always looked for a plan that’s attainable and that he’d want a new plan that increases voter support.
“I don’t see how that happens in a week,” he said.
Bouslog said the board will need to consider the financial aspects of any future project and the impact it will have on property taxes. Under likely review will be the possibility of a 30-year bond rather than a 20-year bond; other funding alternatives; construction costs; a community survey of any future referendum; and the “big ‘if’” of when, how much and even if the district will be receiving a multimillion-dollar capital construction grant that’s been expected from the state since 2006.
Bouslog said grant funds could possibly be applied to the project and significantly reduce the cost of new construction to the benefit of local taxpayers.
Another option for the grant funds could be for the district to move forward with the planned addition to Jefferson School that was part of the original referendum’s second phase. He additionally commended the efforts and openness of Smith, the design team and the community members involved in the initial planning stages of the project.
Along with one of the speakers from the community, Bouslog also mentioned those on social media who spread misinformation prior to the November election and accused the board of being secretive and underhanded during their planning process.
“They are mistaken, and if they need to, all of our minutes are out there. There has been nothing done by this board or this administration that has tried to keep any information from the public,” Bouslog said.
“I wish those who are challenging that fact, and I’m not talking about people who are opposed to the idea, that’s their right. I’m talking about those who are critical of how we’ve handled this, and if there are residents of this district who have some issues with how we’ve done things, I encourage them to contact any of us or the superintendent, and we’d be happy to talk to them about it,” Bouslog said to a round of applause from the crowded room that included many from both sides of the November referendum.
Some of the issues raised by various members of the public who spoke to the board included security issues; costs; funding; the effects a substantial property tax increase would have on local renters and home owners; investing in improvements to a school that would be slated to be demolished in a few years (Douglas Elementary), and the volatile economy.
Bouslog said the district would need to have a new plan prepared by late November or December of this year to be able to have a new referendum on the March 2020 election ballot.
The failed concept was for a new, 109,900-square-foot building for grades 3 through 8 on a 44-acre site in the vicinity of the district office on Dover Road and the Princeton Police Department. The plan also included the demolition and return to green space of Lincoln and Logan schools and $500,000 in upgrades at Douglas School.
There also would have been a second phase that included $1.2 million for an addition, upgrades, security improvements and additional land at Jefferson School followed by the demolition of Douglas School.
The project evolved through the past three years and previously included a plan for a redesigned Jefferson building for grades K-8 that came with a $60 million price tag. The district decided to not put that plan forward to voters.
Smith has said the district spends about $250,000 a year on maintaining its old buildings.
If the November referendum had been approved, property owners would have faced a tax increase of 0.94 per $100 of assessed value over the life of the 20-year bond. Owners of average tillable farmland could have expected to pay an additional $3.58 per acre per year.
The owner of a home with a market value of $100,000 would have seen a yearly increase of $257 in property taxes.
The next Princeton Elementary School Board meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 28 at Logan Junior High.