Board spurns ECFE , Office project

Exactly two weeks to the day that Princeton voters approved a $29.95 million referendum, a school district administrator was before the Princeton Board of Education seeking an additional $600,000 for a renovation of the school district offices and Early Childhood and Family Education facilities.

That didn’t sit well with many school board members at their June 3 meeting.

Gwen Anderson, director of community education  for the Princeton School District, told board members during her proposal that the ECFE facilities were “subpar” and that the school district offices — which are the first point of contact with the school district for many families — seem “icky.”

Board members didn’t dispute those facts but questioned the timing of the request. The ECFE and district office plan was part of discussions when projects for the referendum were being discussed by community focus groups but did not make the final cut.

Board Member Howard Vaillancourt likened the proposal to sticking a finger in the eye of district voters.

“We said we wouldn’t do it, but we’re going to do it anyways,” Vaillancourt said of public perception.

Anderson laid out a plan that would move all ECFE services to one level of the two-story building and school district administration offices to another level. Presently, ECFE classrooms and district offices are commingled throughout the building. This results in a lack of efficiency for both entities, Anderson said.

The end result would be three new classrooms for ECFE, two additional offices for school district staff, a new paint job to spruce up the building and new carpet or laminate flooring throughout. Classrooms would be modernized and restroom facilities would exist in each classroom after renovation, she said.

The project would also create better health and well-being for both students and staff because every classroom and office would have windows. That is not the case now, Anderson said. The project would also accommodate future expansion.

Anderson said the $600,000 project would come at no cost to the taxpayers. She said it would be funded by a $3.5 million account the school district has set aside for building projects.

While the project appeared to be supported by the majority of the board, the timing of which it appeared before them was not.

“I can’t believe we have this in front of us after the steps we went through for the others,” Board Member Craig Johnson said, referring to projects that were included in the $29.95 million referendum project.

“I’ll be blunt,” said Board Member Eric Minks, who noted that after passing the referendum he wouldn’t be happy having to explain how the district would be spending another $600,000. He said the board would also be criticized for drawing the $600,000 from the $3.5 million building fund instead of using those dollars to reduce the building referendum.

“We have a need in Early Ed. We have for a long time,” Johnson said. “I wish it had been included in the referendum.”

But coming back seeking a request two weeks after the referendum vote creates a poor public perception, Johnson said.

The process in which the proposal came before the board also came under fire.

Some board members, including Johnson, Minks and Jeremy Miller, said they were seeing the proposal for the first time on June 3. Others had seen the proposal as it went through committees. It had been through the board’s facilities committee and early on June 3 was discussed at the finance committee, where it was met with neutral reception, it was reported. The proposal was also introduced to the Community Education Advisory Committee.

Some board members were also unhappy that they were being asked to approve the $600,000 project after Anderson’s presentation, when a regular process might include formalized plans, project timelines and community meetings to explain to the public the project and hear its suggestions or concerns.

Board Member Chuck Nagle said the board shouldn’t hear a proposal for the first time and be asked to vote on it 10 minutes later.

After much discussion, Superintendent Julia Espe told Anderson, “I think you’re out of process.”

District administrators weren’t told to give up on the idea; rather, they were asked to put together on paper a formalized plan that the board could study and discuss. The board also suggested a meeting with representatives of ICS, the district’s planning and construction consultant firm, which brought the district an estimate for renovating the district office and ECFE facilities.

“I’m very passionate about this and think this should be done,” Anderson said. “I think we need to invest in birth to 5-year-olds.”