The West Windsor-Plainsboro School District is running out of room for new students, and residents can expect to see a bond referendum for school construction at some point in the next few years.
Superintendent David Aderhold, in a presentation at the Feb. 21 Board of Education meeting, painted a grim picture regarding the district’s ability to absorb new students from residential projects already in the pipeline.
He also speculated on the long-term need for new schools in light of a proposal by the Howard Hughes Corporation to built more than 1,900 housing units on the old American Cyanamid property.
“The facilities need is real and it is now,” Aderhold said.
By the time all is said and done, the district could see the addition of almost 3,000 students, depending on what happens with Howard Hughes. Current enrollment stands at about 9,600.
Of near-term concern are five residential projects already approved or near approval. These developments are projected to collectively add more than 540 students to the district by 2020.
Four developments in West Windsor account for most of the additional students. The impact of the anticipated 443-unit apartment complex by the Princeton Theological Seminary on Wheeler Way is 372 students. The Seminary project is not yet approved, but the property’s zoning permits high density apartments. Aderhold said students could be expected as early as 2019.
The Seminary development’s projected impact is based on student yields from the recently completed Princeton Terrace site on Clarksville Road, which resulted in a ratio of .84 students per apartment unit.
A district demographic study previously estimated the student yield of the apartments in West Windsor at .37 to .74 students per unit, with an average of .52. Townhomes yield an average of .5 students per unit, and single family homes have an average yield of .73 students per house, though newer homes have a higher range of 1.03 to 1.29 children per home.
Based on the average yields, three smaller developments in West Windsor, all approved, project to add more than 110 students to the district: more than 50 students from the 72-unit Project Freedom site, more than 50 students from the adjacent 51-townhouse, 40-apartment Toll Brothers site, and a dozen students from the 20 apartments to be added to the Ellsworth Center.
In Plainsboro, the developer for the approved 394-unit rental apartment complex at Forrestal Village projects the addition of 58 students. However, that tally may end up being off by a couple hundred students if the yield resembles Princeton Terrace’s recent demographic data.
The four residential projects in West Windsor send students to Maurice Hawk and then to Village School. At Maurice Hawk, the district projects increasing the number of third grade sections from eight to nine next year, and so Aderhold said there will be no extra rooms. The school does have room for expansion and the Administration & Facilities Committee has recently discussed a concept plan for an expansion.
In addition, two other developments on the horizon would send students to Maurice Hawk, Village, Grover and South— the 800-unit transit village at the Princeton Junction train station and Garden Homes, a planned 650-unit inclusionary development behind the Square at West Windsor shopping center with 25 percent affordable units.
Aderhold mentioned multiple short-term solutions for responding to additional students, including moving or amending programs to open up classroom space and shifting students to schools with more space.
Class sizes could also increase or even be combined, which he said was “not recommended.” The established elementary-middle-high school paths could be altered, though Aderhold noted that is “unfair to kids.”
“Capacity is a tricky thing. Capacity is a big function of how rooms are used,” Aderhold said. “Solving Hawk and Village short term doesn’t solve Grover and South.”
Also looming is the 650-acre Howard Hughes property in the southeast quadrant of Route 1 and Quakerbridge Road. The developer has submitted a concept plan that calls for 1,976 residential units on the property that could potentially add a large number of students to the district.
Aderhold said that since 2010, the district has met with three different representatives from Howard Hughes, but it wasn’t until February that the company revealed its plans for the property.
“Anything they hinted at didn’t come close to what they submitted,” Aderhold said. He added that if the project is built as currently proposed, one “school will not be enough, we’re talking schools.”
Though the development process is very early, the only residential zoning currently allowed on the Howard Hughes property is one affordable housing site. Aderhold said the district would need three years of lead up time to build a school.
“Will they [Howard Hughes] donate property, donate a school?” Aderhold said. “That is something developers have done.”
In its concept plan, Howard Hughes depicts 32 acres for a school or community recreation site, though Aderhold said a middle school or high school couldn’t be built on only 30 acres.
In its concept plan, Howard Hughes projects that its proposed 927 apartments, 353 townhomes and 460 single-family homes would produce 588 to 988 public school children. It’s a number that the superintendent believes is significantly underestimated.
“I completely disagree with their methodology,” Aderhold said. “No number I can use gets me to 588.”
Based on what he called “quick Sunday afternoon math” without knowing the timing and phasing of the Howard Hughes project, Aderhold said the low range of the Howard Hughes property’s concept plan would ultimately produce 742 students, and a high range of 1,579 students.
“It’s a question of when will we need a bond referendum?” Aderhold said. Besides reviewing which schools have the footprint to expand, the district would also potentially have to acquire land in either township. Aderhold added: “It’s a lot to take in, a lot of potential questions on the table.”
Bruce Salmestrelli, the president of the West Windsor-Plainsboro Education Association teacher’s union, thanked Aderhold for raising the issue. A teacher in the district since the late 1980s, when there were only five school buildings, he said, “I don’t want to live through the pressures of the 1990s.”
School budget previewed
Also during the meeting, Larry Shanok, assistant superintendent for finance, gave a brief budget presentation.
The preliminary 2017-2018 budget projects a 2.12 percent tax levy increase over last year. However, the district is still awaiting the announcement of the amount of state aid that they will be provided. Shanok will give another budget presentation at the Tuesday, March 14 board meeting.
For West Windsor residents, this year’s school tax is $1.493 per $100 of assessed property value, or a school tax of $7,802 for a household with a home assessed at the township average of $522,601.
The school levy for Plainsboro residents is $1.389 per $100 of assessed property. The Plainsboro household living in the average assessed house of $451,588 pays $6,273 in school taxes.
In other news, the board approved an online financial literacy course that will be available beginning this summer. The $350 course is an option II alternative that aligns with the district curriculum, which means students can pass the course and earn credit without having to take a final exam provided by the district. Financial literacy has been a requirement since 2014 and students can also satisfy it through an economics course or by taking a course during their study hall period.