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Local

All sides agree: PES’ building referendum is dead

Maintenance, gradual renovation of existing buildings seen to be district’s future course

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

PRINCETON — The 10 members of an advisory committee comprised of both supporters and opponents of the Princeton Elementary School District’s failed $35 million construction and building consolidation referendum have unanimously agreed the project is dead.

After the 2018 electoral defeat, the school board authorized a community survey to learn what the biggest issues were for voters on both sides.

During a special meeting Wednesday, the advisory committee reviewed the results and discussed the issues. Superintendent Tim Smith will share the group’s opinions with the board as they begin work on a different path for the district’s existing buildings.

The survey pointed to one major factor — the already high rate of taxation burdening district residents.

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

Many written comments in the survey results also addressed that many people, especially those with low or fixed incomes, would significantly struggle with a sizable taxation increase.

Opinions on the project’s future

“It’s dead. If we put it back out there, the taxpayers may see it as though we’re playing a game where we’re trying to shove it down their throats,” committee member Kent Thompson said.

“The people don’t want it. Their reasons may differ, but it’s clear. New construction would be irresponsible at best,” committee member Jarrod Merkley said.

The 25 percent of survey respondents who said they simply won’t support the project, regardless of what’s put forward to voters, was another major concern for much of the committee, including Smith.

“Twenty-five percent is a bad place to start. The people are taxed to death,” committee member Dan Legner said.

The difficult economic prospects of both the local community and the state were another shadow cast over the project’s future.

Merkley cited city and state debt, changing demographics, declining enrollment, bond costs, recent plant closures in the region, agricultural forecasts, and the continuing exodus of residents as reasons to not move forward with a project the community can’t afford.

“People are leaving en masse, and enrollment numbers are dropping. We’re a retirement and agricultural community. No one’s going to move here just because we have a shiny new school,” he said.

“Homeowners are the ones who would get stuck with the bill, and with more people leaving the state, it’s just not possible at all, at least not for now,” Thompson said.

“To put the same plan forward again to voters makes absolutely no sense, and I think people would be offended. We’d probably lose support. If this was the best plan, it’d be beating a dead horse. Even if we build, who’s going to come here? People aren’t coming to Princeton because there’s nothing to come to,” committee member Amy Mack said.

“There aren’t enough jobs here that pay a living wage,” committee member Scott Harp said.

Other concerns included misinformation spread through social media, a criticism of the community forums held prior to the election; a lack of community involvement and parental interest; and how education is evolving, particularly in regard to the use of technology.

Finances

The group discussed the district’s financial options and how a gradual series of renovation projects could be funded. The annual PES budget includes about $700,000 in the district’s building and maintenance fund each year. Soliciting community members and businesses for donations was discussed, and Smith added that district finances are complicated because of the state’s financial challenges.

“I never try to forecast what the state is going to do. They’ve made my job very difficult,” he said.

Committee member Rita Calvert agreed the project was dead, but added, “I’m not disheartened. I think we just need to move forward with smaller, more accomplishable goals.”

Project has evolved

The project evolved through several years. It first included a redesigned Jefferson building with a $60 million price tag. Because of the overwhelming estimated cost, the district chose against presenting it to voters. Instead, they began work on a two-phase effort.

The first phase included a new, 109,900-square-foot building for grades 3 through 8, the demolition of Lincoln and Logan schools, and $500,000 in upgrades at Douglas School. An additional $1.2 million would have been spent on upgrades and additional land at Jefferson School.

The second phase would have begun when, and if, the district received funds from the state through a 2006 capital construction grant. Those funds would have been used for an addition at Jefferson, and Douglas School would have been demolished.

This plan resulted in a defeat 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 would have paid an additional $3.58 per acre per year.

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

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

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