November 13, 2019

BOE Election Results Offer Mixed Messages

By Donald Gilpin

Four highly qualified candidates competed in last week’s election for three seats on the Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Board of Education (BOE), as the PPS faces the challenges of education in the 21st century, along with overcrowding, rising enrollments, and budget shortfalls that last year necessitated laying off teachers.

Princeton residents were asked to vote for three of the four, and they divided their 11,627 votes closely among the candidates, with all four finishing within four percentage points: Susan Kanter at 27.15 percent (3,157 votes), Dafna Kendal at 25.35 percent (2,948 votes), Debbie Bronfeld at 24.04 percent (2,795 votes), and Greg Stankiewicz at 23.07 percent (2,682 votes).

These results are still unofficial, with provisional ballots remaining to be counted, but the Mercer County Clerk’s Office is expected to certify the final votes today.

As in last year’s election, when two newcomers won seats and Kendal lost her post after her first term on the BOE, the outsiders fared better than the incumbents, with new candidate Kanter and former BOE member Kendal out-polling incumbents Bronfeld, who held onto her post with the third-most votes, and incumbent BOE Vice President Stankiewicz, who finished fourth and will be stepping down when his term ends at the end of the year.

Is there a message here for the Princeton schools, or for the planning firm recently hired to help address challenges of growing student populations and aging schools? Do BOE members and school officials have a mandate of some sort from the people of Princeton?

Three of the candidates and the president of the BOE shared their thoughts on those questions in response to email requests for comment.

Emphasizing the importance of transparency and community involvement in decision-making, Stankiewicz nonetheless doubted that a particular message had emerged from the elections.

“I think it is impossible to draw conclusions about an election where three of the four candidates are incumbents or former incumbents,” he said. “It is also hard to do so when turnout is low, and where four percentage points separate the highest and lowest vote recipients.”

Stankiewicz went on to note, “Throughout the campaign, I heard strong community support for the current Board’s emphasis on making its decisions openly and transparently, relying on data, and actively engaging with all voices in our community.”

Kanter supported Stankiewicz’s assertion on the importance of keeping in touch with the community. “The BOE must continue to improve communication to the taxpayers, so we can foster community-based, data-driven decisions that support all of our students,” she said.

“As I campaigned,” Kanter continued, “I believe the voters connected with a message that encouraged the BOE to truly listen to our whole community and make decisions through a lens of equity, inclusion, and wellness for our students as we act as stewards of taxpayer funds.” 

Contending that Princeton voters opted for experience on the School Board, Kendal echoed some of her colleagues’ themes, stating that voters want Board members who “think independently, promote transparency, and work resourcefully and prudently with taxpayer dollars.” She further noted that Princeton residents “strongly support equity and inclusion” and want Board members to “ensure that every student is getting what they need to meet their full potential.” 

Kendal claimed that last spring’s staff cuts, approved 6-4 by the Board, “reduced services for all students, but especially minority students, struggling learners, and special education students. This decision went against the values of our community, which prides itself on the diversity and inclusiveness of our schools.” She said that other options could have been considered and that “voters were surprised and angered by the consequences of this decision.”

BOE President Beth Behrend stressed that “Princeton is fortunate to have community members so passionate about public education that they are willing to campaign tirelessly in order to have the privilege of devoting countless unpaid hours in service of our students.”

She called for an emphasis on the road ahead and the shared mission of BOE, administrators, teachers, staff, students, and community. “I’m looking forward to getting beyond the election now,” she said. “We need all 10 Board members fully focused on the challenging work of overseeing the Princeton Public Schools.”

She continued, “Our focus remains on priority issues we have identified related to equity and student well-being. We also have significant financial and facilities issues we have to pay attention to.”