July 29, 2020

Eight Candidates Vie for Three Spots On Public Schools Board of Education

By Donald Gilpin

Two incumbents, one former Board of Education (BOE) member, and five new candidates will be running to fill three available seats on the Princeton Public Schools (PPS) BOE in the November election.  In the context of a pandemic, with the challenges of managing a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning, a search to hire a permanent superintendent and assistant superintendent, and overseeing completion of referendum building projects, the stakes are high.   

BOE President Beth Behrend and Vice President Michele Tuck-Ponder will each be looking to win a second three-year term. Jessica Deutsch, did not file to run for another term, and will step down from the Board at the end of this year.  Bill Hare, who served on the BOE from 2017-2019 and declined to run in last year’s race, will join new candidates Paul Johnson and Karen Lemon in running as a team in the non-partisan November election. Adam Bierman, Hendricks Davis, and Jean Durbin have also filed to run in the BOE race, according to the Mercer County Clerk’s Office.

Behrend, a corporate attorney advising large corporations on financings, joint ventures, governance, and regulatory matters, who has served as BOE president since 2018, is the mother of three children who have gone through the PPS. “I am running for a second term on the Board of Education because I care deeply about preparing our children for their future, which is likely to look very different from our past,” she wrote in an email.

Behrend listed numerous accomplishments of the district administration and staff, supported by the Board, during her first term, and noted, “With experienced, professional board leadership, we can be strategic and fiscally smart, grow our strengths, improve where we can do better, listen to all voices, and ensure that our children are ready for whatever their future may bring.”

She added that nothing in her many years of experience in law or as a volunteer in the schools and other organizations had quite prepared her “for the intense learning curve and enormous satisfaction of School Board service.”  She concluded, “I’ve truly enjoyed focusing my time and talents on work that is, in the end, always about the kids.”

Tuck-Ponder, former mayor of Princeton Township, commissioner on the Princeton Public Housing Authority, executive director of a global educational nonprofit, and the only person of color on the Board, emphasized her unique perspective on the issues confronting the schools. 

“I am running again because there is much more work to do, particularly in the area of equity, in our school district,” she wrote.  “Princeton has great schools, but we will never be a Great school district until all children have an equal opportunity to excel and achieve. This has been an elusive goal in Princeton for decades, and I am committed to achieving sustainable change in that area.”

A 29-year resident of Princeton, Tuck-Ponder has a daughter in college who graduated from Princeton High School (PHS) in 2017 and a son in the eighth grade at John Witherspoon Middle School. Her husband is an attorney and artist.

Running as a slate with a platform of “diversity, affordability, and trust,” Hare, Johnson, and Lemon emphasized the importance of leadership for the future of PPS.  Their platform statement calls for “a culture where equity is a core value and hate is not tolerated.”  They state that, if elected, they will “prioritize diversity in hiring practices; implement best practices to address opportunity gaps; employ a diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative for all rising freshmen; and address behavior not in line with the core values of our community.”

To achieve affordability without sacrificing excellence in education, they say they would “reduce the use of costly consultants; implement creative solutions around capital projects; leverage staff and parents in making financial decisions; and focus dollars on students and teachers in the classroom.”

Claiming a commitment to listening, respecting, and being responsive, Hare, Johnson, and Lemon cite the need for greater trust in the school community. “Actions they will take include: listening and using teacher, parent, and community member input in decision-making; being transparent regarding decisions made by the board; and communicating via not just board meetings but also student, teacher, and parent forums,” according to their July 27 statement.

The parent of a son at PHS and a son and daughter who recently graduated from PHS, Hare is an engineer and patent attorney who focuses on pharmaceuticals and medical devices. “Throughout his career he has worked with creative problem solvers and wants to again bring this emphasis on creativity to the Board and district,” notes a statement.

Johnson, a second-generation Princeton native, was a college athlete at the University of Virginia, then a coach at Drew University and Rutgers-Camden. He transitioned into the private sector as a coach and mentor to many student athletes in the area. He is the founder and owner of Inspire Sports Club and the G.O.A.T. Lab. He and his girlfriend have five children between them, three attending PPS, he reported.

Lemon, a 10-year resident of Princeton, recently retired as an executive at AT&T, where she led a global organization running corporate IT networks, as well as leading cultural and diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. She is on the board for Junior Achievement in New Jersey. She and her wife have two sons, who both attended public school.   

Bierman, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on Princeton Council last fall, is a teacher at the State Division of Children and Families, working with at-risk students in Trenton.  “I believe that my background and experience can help prioritize spending on that which is most important for our students and community,” Bierman stated in a press release issued last week. “Our schools are incredibly important to our children, their families, and the overall community.”

A Princeton native who went through the PPS system, Bierman noted that his mother taught in the Princeton Public Schools for 35 years and his father was president of the BOE in the 1960s and 70s.  Bierman emphasized the need for the BOE to cut costs and avoid wasteful spending.  “I believe the School Board must learn to live within its means and reprioritize in order to stop wasteful spending,” he wrote, criticizing the Board for blindly following the superintendent and administration and failing to ask the tough questions and to explore every option. 

“As a Board member and an independent thinker, I promise to scrutinize closely all spending requests and to leave no path undiscovered,” he said. 

Durbin, a lawyer currently leading the contracts management program in the Office of Finance and Treasury at Princeton University, has worked as an attorney for nonprofits, municipalities, school districts, and a union, and has worked for the City of Philadelphia Law Department. She serves on the Princeton Civil Rights Commission, as a coordinator for the Princeton Little League, and, for the last two-and-a-half years, as president of the Princeton Community Democratic Organization.  She has volunteered extensively in the PPS.

Durbin emphasized her commitment to “excellence, equity, and accountability” in the schools and stated that her two top priorities would be “protecting the health, wellness, and safety of our children, families, teachers, and staff as we face the pressures of re-entry during a pandemic; and providing our children with meaningful racial literacy instruction while fostering authentic dialogue within our schools.”

Citing her 14 years of service to the Princeton schools and community, along with her professional experience, Durbin pointed out her ability to work well as part of a team. “My overall approach as a Board member will be to work collaboratively and intentionally to find equitable, cost-effective solutions to school and community challenges,” she said.

Davis, the eighth candidate, was out of town and unable to be reached at press time.

Voters mailing in ballots or going to the polls in November will be able to vote for three candidates for the three available positions on the Princeton BOE.  In the race for Princeton Mayor, Mark Freda is running unopposed, and in the contest for Princeton Council, David Cohen and Leticia Fraga are also unopposed in their re-election bid.