Princeton Public Schools (PPS) has a tough decision to make. Earlier this week, the Princeton School Board unveiled a $95 million budget proposal for the 2017-18 school year. If the budget passes, homeowners will see a 5 percent increase in property taxes. But even with a tax hike, there would still be a budget deficit of almost $400,000. The Board’s spending is unsustainable. Something needs to go.
Tax hikes are not a rare occurrence in Princeton. The proposed budget is the latest in a line of school plans that overspend and pass the bill onto the town. Budget plans for the last two school years proposed increasing property taxes by at least 2 percent each, which, as of 2010, is the maximum amount a municipality can annually raise property taxes in New Jersey without a waiver.
Tax increases to fund education are not always bad. They can be beneficial if they fund essential programs which greatly impact students’ learning. But historically, this has not been the case for PPS. Last year, Princeton’s tax dollars funded initiatives like an additional psychology intern, a “P/T Innovation Coach,” and garden education for the elementary schools. These “initiatives” sound like amenities at a high-end weekend retreat, not essential services at a school. It is understandable that the Board does not want to approach teachers’ unions about adjusting salaries right away, but something must go in order to pay for the expansion of the Charter School. Superfluous expenses should be easy cuts. Surely, the Board understands that the children of Princeton can survive without learning how to grow carrots.
Even if the Board decides that PPS needs every proposed budget item, the community should still discuss how to curtail its school’s constant overspending. As Princeton homeowners probably know, current local property taxes already average over $18,000, more than twice the state average. Princeton is well-off, so it could arguably absorb tax increases for a while, but a trend of increased costs indicates a lack of thought given to efficiency.
The Board needs to identify what is essential for education at PPS and weigh the pros and cons of cutting the rest. Some of the choices will not be received well. PPS families are accustomed to having extraordinary resources, and it is hard for any school to delay updating textbooks or upgrading its technology. But as a public school kid who studied with three- to five-year-old textbooks, I am convinced that some cuts here and there will not cause a significant change in school quality. And figuring out how to efficiently and sustainably run PPS now will avoid larger cuts in the future, like teacher layoffs, that could more significantly impact learning.
This Thursday, Mar. 16, the Board will vote on the proposed budget. I recommend that the Board delay the vote and thoroughly reexamine its proposal. The Board cannot continue relying on taxpayers to foot the bill for its inability to make budgeting decisions. The town elected the Board’s members to make sure that PPS will remain not only successful, but also solvent. Yet, they have skirted responsibility in past years. Now, the decisions will be even harder because of the Board’s procrastination. But something must be done.
Sarah Dinovelli is a junior from Mystic, CT. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.