October 4, 2017

School Board Forum Presents Six Hopefuls For Only Three Seats

By Donald Gilpin

The six candidates who will be on the ballot for the Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Board of Education election on November 7 presented their qualifications and shared their perspectives on the greatest challenges facing the district in the coming years in a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters (LWV) in the Municipal Building Monday night. 

Vying for three available seats, currently filled by Justin Doran, Fern Spruill, and Connie Witter, who will be stepping down in January at the end of their three-year terms, the widely experienced contenders, with resumes from the worlds of business, law, nonprofits, education, public service, science, and theology, discussed how their education and experience will help them address the most important issues facing the district.

The candidates, all parents of current or recent students in the district schools, responded to questions gathered from various sources, including high school students, members of the audience, and others in the community. The priorities of the six candidates, in reflecting on the schools and their needs, seemed to align closely with the concerns expressed in the range of questions asked.

Managing growth, overcrowding, and a $95 million budget was a key topic. Dealing with stress and promoting physical and mental well-being was another much emphasized concern, with several speakers eager to take more energetic action in response to the disturbing results of last fall’s Stanford Survey of Adolescent School Experiences. And the related question of how to do a better job of listening to and engaging students prompted much commentary from the candidates. How best to confront racial bias and achievement gaps and to promote racial literacy in the schools was another focal point of the discussion.

Beth Behrend emphasized the value of her experience as a corporate lawyer, as well as her extensive involvement in the schools and in a range of local nonprofit organizations. ”We’re running out of space and we’re in a financial box,” she said. “We need to sit down and work together.”

Behrend also emphasized her overall concern about wellness and reaching out to all of the students in the district. “What happens to the kids who don’t take the advanced classes? I have a lot of concern about that.” Behrend suggested that the Stanford Survey should be administered every year so that the district could chart its progress, “and we should hold the administration accountable to see that things get done.”

Jessica Deutsch, a college and pre-med advisor at Princeton and Rutgers Universities and privately to high school and college students and parents all over the country, also weighed in directly on the question of wellness and balance in PPS. “How do we create a culture of wellness?” she asked.

She emphasized the issue of homework and said that the key point is the quality of the assignments, not just how many minutes. “We need to think about homework in the context of the full educational experience. Is the homework meaningful? We also need to consider how we’re providing social structure for our kids. Are they known for who they are, not just what they do?”

James Fields, a Princeton resident for the past five years, was an associate pastor and dean of students at a school in Maryland and currently serves as interim director of the Christian Union at Princeton University. He noted that his priorities are “to build bridges and to focus on how we deal with racial issues.”

He added that the PPS faculty and administration should more accurately reflect the student population. “We need to have people from different backgrounds in positions of leadership to help minority voices to be heard,” he said. Fields cited his experience in working with “the largest student organization on campus” at Princeton University and emphasized that “stewardship is very important to me.”

As a scientific writer, researcher, and an energetic volunteer at Littlebrook and John Witherspoon, Jenny Ludmer emphasized the importance of the kind of analysis, questioning, and collaboration that she has learned to use in identifying areas in the schools that need improvement and in implementing those changes.

Ludmer also highlighted the need for more transparency and better communication with parents. “We need to do more intentional listening,” she said. “We need to make it easier for parents to give feedback to the board and administration.” She recommended that the Board issue parent satisfaction surveys.

Julie Ramirez, a project manager at Goldman Sachs for 18 years before beginning work last fall with the Office of Finance and Treasury at Princeton University, pointed out the value of her experience in addressing crucial needs of the district. “I’m eager to apply my professional experience to an area I feel passionately about,” she said.

Ramirez noted a number of the challenges that Board members will face. “How do we preserve excellence in the face of these challenges?” she asked. ”How do we react to the Stanford Survey without overreacting?”

Michele Tuck-Ponder, who served two terms on the Princeton Township Committee and three years as mayor, and has led a number of nonprofit organizations, currently operates a consulting firm. She emphasized that her years of public service have taught her that “it takes a village” to educate children. She noted that one reason she’s running for School Board is that “I can’t do anything about what’s happening in Washington, D.C., but I can do something here.”

Racial sensitivity training and racial literacy training, she argued “are not going to get us to where we need to go. We need to change the structure.” Tuck-Ponder mentioned the need for greater diversity in faculty and administration, not just hiring more teachers of color, but also creating a support system to help them and make sure that they stay.