January 9, 2019

New School Board Looks to Focus on Students

Donald Gilpin

The Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Board of Education (BOE) is off and running in the new year with major plans, priorities, and challenges for Princeton ’s schools — but is in no rush to advance another facilities referendum in 2019.

Calling for a primary emphasis on the students, newly-elected BOE President Beth Behrend noted, “There has been lots of robust discussion about the schools in the past year, but not enough time to focus on students and their needs.”

Despite the scaling back of referendum plans last year from $137 million to $26.9 million with the PPS seeking additional funds to combat overcrowding and renovate aging buildings, Behrend suggested that the BOE would not be rushing to seek another bond issue.

“Referendum? — it’s premature for me to speculate on that,” she said in a phone interview on Monday. “We’re not interested in rushing anything. There is overcrowding and there are needs, but as a Board we need to have plenty of information in front of us. We need to update our demographic studies. We need to take our time and think through the challenges.  And people in the community want to be involved.”

Noting the “wisdom, expertise, and resources” available in Princeton, Behrend emphasized the importance of collaboration and community involvement. “It’s exciting,” she said. “These plans will impact our community for the next 50 years. We’re taking time to do it in a way that’s collaborative and careful.”

At the January 3 BOE meeting Betsy Baglio, returning for a second term, and newly-elected members Daniel Dart and Brian McDonald, were sworn in for three-year terms. Behrend, starting her second year on the Board, and Greg Stanckiewicz, in his third year, were elected president and vice president respectively.

Behrend noted the strength and the range of backgrounds and perspectives on the 10-member BOE. Even though there have been some indications, through the referendum process and the November election, of a rift in the group, she dismissed the idea that strong differences of
opinion would cause problems for this Board.

“Our decisions will be enhanced by different perspectives,” she said, suggesting that unanimity is overrated. “We share a focus on the students. None of us can work individually. Unanimity is not what it’s cracked up to be. If you’re always voting unanimously, you may be missing something. We’re going to be stronger for our differences. I welcome the fact that people want to be involved, that people feel passionately.” 

Behrend went on to applaud the town’s energetic engagement in the BOE election. “There was a lot of interest across the candidates,” she said. “This was an opportunity for people to be involved. People were very engaged in ways they hadn’t been in the past. Maybe because of frustrations with national politics, people felt strongly and wanted to be more involved locally.”

Both Behrend and Stanciewicz expressed gratitude to the town for passing the December 11 bond referendum. “All on the Board are grateful that the community trusted us and supported the referendum,” said Stanciewicz. “They entrusted us to work together with the community and move that plan forward.” 

Behrend added that after the primary focus on students, the BOE’s next priority would be to implement the $26.9 million referendum renovations and upgrades “with care, time, and transparency. We plan to work with the community on each step and take advantage of local expertise,” she said.

Behrend cited a number of different areas on the agenda for addressing student-related issues, including student wellness, equity, restorative justice, possible expansions of problem-based learning and dual-language immersion (DLI) programs, and others. “There are so many things that the schools have been working on successfully,” she added. “We need to make sure that all children have access to these programs.” 

Stanciewicz expressed gratitude for the accomplishments of the previous Board and optimism for the coming year. “I’m excited about the challenges ahead. It’s an exciting moment in our schools. Over the past years there have been a lot of things that have helped improve the student experience and move us towards our goals. It’s a privilege to follow Boards that have worked hard to accomplishment so much.”

He went on to praise PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane and the whole school community. “We’re optimistic,” he said. “Steve Cochrane is an outstanding superintendent. He has vision and strong leadership. There are a lot of strong, passionate people involved, and it will be exciting to see how we do our work together.”

The BOE followed up its Thursday night session with a retreat on Saturday to work on matters of governance, communications, and other topics with the guidance of a representative from the New Jersey School Board Association.