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Vol. LXIV, No. 11
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
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School Board Candidates Discuss Money, Community Outreach, and Diversity

Ellen Gilbert

Three Township candidates are vying for two seats in the coming School Board election on Tuesday, April 20. Finance Committee chair Dorothy Bedford is running for reelection, and newcomers Molly Chrein and Afsheen Shamsi have tossed their hats into the ring. Current Board member and Township resident Joann Cunningham, who is a member of the Personnel and Program committees, has chosen not to run for reelection.

Andrea Spalla is running unopposed for the single Borough seat that has become available as a result of Board President Alan Hegedus’s decision not to run again.

“It’s a bit of a shame to be running unopposed,” commented Ms. Spalla, a former New York City attorney who is currently a stay-at-home-mom.

With two youngsters in elementary school, Ms. Spalla says that she, for one, “has a continuing stake in the success of the schools.” She reported being “closely involved” as a volunteer in the district, including two-and-a-half years as co-president of the Community Park PTO. “It’s given me a lot of insight into how the schools work and how the district works,” she reported. “It’s made me appreciate just how well the schools function on the limited resources that they have, making every dollar go as far as possible.”

The district could do better in the communications department, Ms. Spalla noted. “The Board, in general, has always been focused on running the school district, but one thing that hasn’t been done is really effective community outreach and communication with all the constituents in Princeton. Anyone who works or is a parent in the district will certainly tell you that communications could be improved.”

Afsheen Shamsi, a community relations director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations with an 11-year-old son in the fifth grade, also believes in community involvement, as well as “a better appreciation of diversity” among students.

“When a couple of members of the Board of Education reached out to me to run, I realized that my work in the nonprofit world would be a valuable asset,” she reported. “I believe there could be more community involvement using Twitter and Facebook. Residents could be better informed about decisions, express their opinions, and be part of the decision-making mechanism.

“Because I work for a civil rights organization, a lot of the work I do focuses on victims of discrimination and hate crimes, so I would like to see this district work more on enhancing cultural proficiency training for students and administration so that there is a greater acceptance of diversity. Princeton is an enlightened town, but you can never have enough enhancement of understanding diversity,” said Ms. Shamsi. She also cited the importance of exercising “fiscal prudence” in a time of diminished budgets.

The candidate had only praise for the autism program in which her son is enrolled at Riverside School. “I’m a big fan. I think it’s one of the things that the system does really well. The administration and teachers are very student-centered, and the program is built according to the needs of each individual student.”

“One of the reasons Princeton is a place people move to is the schools,” commented Princeton Education Foundation (PEF) board member Molly Chrain. She reports being “so happy with the school system and the education” her fifth-grade son is receiving at Community Park, and her eighth-grade daughter is getting at John Witherspoon Middle School.

Ms. Chrain, who also volunteers with CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates for abused and neglected children), noted that with the recent completion of several building projects, “there aren’t going to be big capital costs” for the district in the coming years. She believes that curriculum should be the Board’s next focal point, with special attention to “how technology changes education. PEF has given grants in this area. It’s very important to think about technology; our kids are going to be doing jobs that don’t even exist right now.” Ms. Chrain reported that she is also “a proponent of learning good communication skills, and expressing coherent thoughts.” The former trial lawyer said that she is a big believer in people being able to “speak and make arguments.”

Like the other candidates, Ms. Chrain is concerned about money matters. “Knowing that we are in a fiscal crisis, I want a proponent of the school system sitting on the board. The fiscal crisis is a driving influence and maintaining excellence, and keeping as many programs as possible, are the priorities.”

Money was also on incumbent Dorothy Bedford’s mind. “The Board has accomplished much in the areas of fiscal restraint, and overall student achievement,” she said. “Last year’s tax levy increase of 1.66 percent was the lowest in many years. However, the tasks before us are huge. In this period of financial turmoil, the Board needs continuity and taxpayers need elected representatives with proven track records.”

“It is clear that painful cuts are imminent, and the Princeton schools are going to live with less, as everyone is doing these days,” she added. “But as in business, it is essential to figure out ‘up front’ how to best conserve preparedness and expertise so that, as funds become available, the most critical programs can be restored efficiently.”

Ms. Bedford, who has resided in the Township since 1993, is probably best known as the former executive director of Princeton University’s 250th Anniversary celebrations. Her three daughters are alumnae of Riverside School and John Witherspoon Middle School.

Voters will have a chance to meet the four candidates at “Board Candidates’ Night,” on Monday, April 12, at 7:30 p.m. in the John Witherspoon Middle School library.

Polls on April 20 will be open from noon to 9 p.m. In addition to selecting school board candidates, residents will be voting on a yet to be determined school budget.

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