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Local

PES learns tax increase was biggest factor in its failed 2018 referendum

Community survey also reveals many voters had concerns with land issues

Tim Smith
Princeton Elementary Schools superintendent
Tim Smith Princeton Elementary Schools superintendent

PRINCETON — During a special meeting Wednesday, the Princeton Elementary School District Board was presented the results of its recent community survey.

Conducted to help board members learn which issues led to the narrow November 2018 election defeat of a $35 million construction and consolidation referendum, the survey pointed to one major factor — the already high rate of taxation facing district voters.

“One reason stood out above all others. Clearly the main reason was the property tax increase was felt to be excessive,” Laura Kann told the board.

Kann and Wick Warren, both knowledgeable researchers with decades of professional experience gained through the management of surveys for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), volunteered to conduct the survey at no cost to the district. The pair has been published in more than 600 scientific journal articles in which they described survey results and their methodology.

Prior to their presentation, Superintendent Tim Smith thanked the pair for their generosity, and Kann said it was important to both her and Warren to be able to use their knowledge to give back to the community.

Previous consolidation efforts

The project to consolidate the district’s buildings and construct a new facility has evolved through several years. It previously included a plan for a redesigned Jefferson building for grades K-8 that arrived with a $60 million price tag. Because of the overwhelming estimated cost that would have raised property taxes for a $100,000 home by $440 a year for 20 years, the district chose against presenting it to voters. Instead, the district began work on an entirely new, two-phase effort.

The first part was a new, 109,900-square-foot building for grades 3 through 8 that included the demolition and return to green space of Lincoln and Logan schools, and $500,000 in upgrades at Douglas School. An additional $1.2 million would have been spent on upgrades, security improvements and 15 acres of additional land at Jefferson School.

The new building was planned for a 44-acre site at Dover Road and Sixth Street. Smith previously said the district had “a gentleman’s agreement” to pay $20,000 per acre for the 44-acre site, but reiterated there was no binding contract. During one of the many forums held to discuss the project, Smith added the per-acre price was similar to other local acreage with development potential.

“We’re not buying farmland. If you look at any land that’s near developed areas, you’ll see similar prices,” he said.

The second phase would have begun when, and if, the district received funds from the state through a 2006 capital construction grant. Following the receipt of those funds, an addition at Jefferson would have been built to house pre-K through second grade, and Douglas School would have been demolished and returned to green space.

This plan resulted in a narrowly-defeated $35 million referendum in the November 2018 election, with 2,721 votes against it, and 2,525 votes in favor. The margin of defeat was about 52 percent to 48 percent.

If approved, property owners of a home with a market value of $100,000 would have seen a tax increase of $257 a year 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.

Smith has said the district spends about $250,000 a year on maintaining its old buildings, and their aging condition was a focal point of the arguments in support of the plan.

Survey results

To encourage responses to the mail survey, a raffle for one of three $100 Princeton Chamber of Commerce gift certificates was included and funded through a private donation.

Kann explained the survey was conducted by randomizing a selection from the district’s 8,812 registered voters. The district gained no knowledge of any private information through the survey, and Kann said all of it was properly destroyed after compiling the results.

“All voters had an equal probability of being selected,” she said.

She said 370 responses were received from the first mailing of 1,200 in May.

A second mailing was conducted in June, and 83 responses were returned for a total of 453.

The survey ended with a response rate of 41 percent, higher than the typical 30 to 35 percent, according to Kann.

Additionally, 12 non-sampled surveys were received from those who weren’t mailed a survey, but still wished to share their opinions. Those responses were included separately in what was presented to the board.

Of those, Kann said six were in favor of the referendum, and six were against.

The sampled results revealed 47.8 percent were in support of the project and 52.2 percent were against it, similar to the election results.

“This helps show us the responses are representative of the registered voters in the district,” she said.

Additional, verbatim comments included with responses were shared with the board. The results were also broken up into a wide variety of demographic categories.

Of those in favor of the referendum, 25.2 percent said the most important reason for doing so was that the existing buildings don’t provide an adequate educational environment. Roughly 23 percent said the cost of renovating the buildings would be more than the cost of the referendum; and 21 percent felt it would be good for long-term and economic growth of the community.

For those against the referendum, 54.5 percent felt the tax increase would be excessive. Much smaller percentages of respondents cited that the purchase of land was unnecessary or too expensive, that the existing buildings were good enough; safety and security weren’t sufficient, a dislike of the chosen location, or a lack of information.

Written comments reflected concerns that many people, especially those with low or fixed incomes, would struggle with the sizable financial burden. Several complained of the already high taxation rates to which residents are subjected and pointed out this was one of the main reasons residents and businesses have been fleeing the state in record numbers. Some felt the financial obligation should be shared with more than just property owners.

One respondent claimed Princeton Elementary’s share of their property tax bill had grown by more than 141 percent since 1993. They added the district received 34.74 percent of their property taxes in 2018, and that with the referendum increase, the percentage would have grown to 41.5 percent. They said in 1993, the percentage was 29.54 percent.

Others questioned why the district needed a new and larger building when enrollment numbers, as well as the population of Princeton and the state, are declining. Many took issue with the purchase price and amount of land. Another suggested it would be financially prudent to consolidate the elementary and high school districts. Others questioned the board’s desire to continue pushing the project after voters made their choice. One response asked if there would have been a survey conducted if the referendum had passed.

“I encourage you to read all of the additional comments because many of them are very thoughtful,” Kann told the board.

Board members will be studying the results before deciding how they will proceed.

The full survey results can be seen online at www.princeton115schools.org.

The next PES Board meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 26.

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