The West Windsor-Plainsboro Board of Education has taken the first step toward the construction of a 16-classroom expansion at Maurice Hawk School.
The board voted 8-1 on April 25 to authorize the transfer of $12.5 million from the district’s capital reserve account to fund the expansion. Because the project will be paid for with funds on hand, the district will not have to hold a referendum, which is only required when issuing bonds to pay for a project.
The district is on a tight timeline to get the expansion underway. It wants to finish by the start of the 2019-’20 school year—in time for an expected influx of an estimated 484 new students from developments set to start construction in West Windsor within the next year.
These are in addition to students that would be generated by the almost 2,000-unit development being proposed by Howard Hughes for the old American Cyanamid property.
Using the capital reserve funds allows the district to get the ball rolling now, according to officials. If the district had opted to bond the money, the earliest a referendum could be held is December. That would push completion back to 2020 at the earliest. In that case, there would not be enough classroom space at Hawk, which is almost at capacity, for incoming students.
A conceptual plan for the Hawk expansion presented to the board by administration in March calls for the construction of 16 classrooms, music and art rooms, and child-study office spaces. Four of those classrooms would be used for pre-K and those students would be transferred from Village School. That would open up four classrooms there to be used for fourth and fifth grade students. The addition would be built in the open area between the current front of the school and Clarksville Road.
The Maurice Hawk expansion is the first of a number of building projects that will be needed throughout the district to accommodate students generated by numerous residential projects in both townships. Superintendent David Aderhold has estimated that as many as 3,200 students could be added to the district in the next 10-15 years. The district will have to issue bonds to pay for most or all of those projects.
“I think there’s going to be plenty of opportunity to be borrowing money in the future, unfortunately,” said board president Anthony Fleres.
Aderhold said that the board’s approval on April 25 was the first of multiple steps in the process for the Hawk expansion. The next is to submit initial paperwork to the state Department of Education. Then in September or October, the district would submit schematics and plans for the expansion to the Department of Education and the state Department of Community Affairs for a review that would take between 90 and 120 days.
“That gets us to January, but then we have to go out to bid,” Aderhold said. “By the time the bids come in and go through legal review, the school board wouldn’t be able to award a contract until March or April of 2018.”
“By the time the board is in a place to actualize the $12.5 million, you will have a lot more data in front of you,” Aderhold said. “This allows us to continue a long process to get to March, and it puts a plan in place to solve the capacity needs for Hawk based on what we know today.”
Aderhold also noted that the expansion only provides space at Maurice Hawk for four West Windsor residential projects expected to be built in the next few years. Those projects are:
Woodstone, a 443-unit apartment complex on the Princeton Theological Seminary site. The project, which is expected to be approved by the planning board this summer, is projected to generate 372 students;
A 91-unit development (51 townhouses and 40 apartments) approved for the Maneely property off Bear Brook Road. The project, which is being built by Toll Brothers, is expected to break ground this spring. The number of projected students is more than 50;
The 72-unit Project Freedon development on the Maneely property, which is expected to break ground this spring, and is projected to add more than 50 students to the district;
And a 20-unit apartment project approved at the Ellsworth Center on Princeton-Hightstown Road. That development is expected to break ground in September 2018, and is projected to add 12 students to the district. The children from all four of those developments would go to Maurice Hawk, Village School, Grover Middle School and High School South.
Board member Carol Herts cast the lone dissenting vote against the fund allocation, suggesting that the district should wait until it has more information about demographics and capacity at the Maurice Hawk.
“We need to know what the basic facts are to make an informed decision on how many students our schools will have in the next five to 10 years and what the current capacity of schools are,” Herts said. “We need to optimize the use of the buildings we have before spending money on new additions.”
Herts also said there’s no way of knowing for sure when, or if, the housing will actually be built. She pointed to the transit village at the Princeton Junction train station, which was approved in the late 2000s but still has not happened.
“Developers talk a lot, but until they actually do something, you can’t go around building new (school) buildings,” she said.
Fleres said that Aderhold has been meeting with the mayors and governing bodies of both towns, and none of the officials in either community have disputed the number of school kids projected to come from upcoming projects.
Larry Shanok, assistant superintendent for finance, indicated that the sooner the board acts, the more time the district has to guard against complications.
For example, the state can deviate from the stated project review times and grant itself extensions. “If that happens, it will just push the timeline out further,” he said.
Other delays can occur too. Bids can come in too high for the project, forcing the district to have to rebid. It might be faced with having to amend the project to reduce costs if bids continue to come in too high. A bidder could decide to file litigation challenging the district’s bid award. WW-P has experienced these scenarios in the past.
“All of those things can happen and chew up time, and if you don’t mind those happening, you can let the extra time go,” Shanok said.
“In the end, we want to be ready in September of 2019 if these children show up. We’ve talked this to death,” said Fleres before calling for the vote. The measure was approved by Fleres, Isaac Cheng, Louisa Ho, Rachel Juliana, Michele Kaish, Dana Krug, YZ Zhang and Yu “Taylor” Zhong.
The decision on the Hawk expansion is the first of many that the board will need to make. Aderhold said that the board will need to start considering school construction throughout the district within the next few months.
A 650-unit apartment complex proposed for the Lowes Center off Route 1, and a 150-unit townhome development on the Thompson Property on Old Trenton Road both could start sending students by 2021, according to West Windsor Township projections.
“In order to prepare for those, we would have to start looking at land acquisition and referendums,” Aderhold said. “This school year, we’re going to have to start that conversation. Yesterday we should have started that conversation.”
He added that it will take at least four years to go through land acquisition, a referendum and then school construction.
And that doesn’t take into account the Howard Hughes project or other major projects in both towns that will create the need for expansion at almost all schools. “There’s big decisions for this board in the years to come,” Aderhold said.