September 16, 2020

Eight School Board Candidates to Face Off In W-J Virtual Forum

By Donald Gilpin

A virtual Board of Education (BOE) Candidates Forum on Saturday, September 19 at 9:30 a.m., sponsored by the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Association (WJNA), will address issues of “equity, access, and accountability,” with eight candidates sharing their visions of the future for Princeton Public Schools and their reasons for seeking one of the three open seats on the BOE in the November 3 election.

Also on Saturday’s agenda, for the second part of the meeting, will be a discussion on zoning and its impact on affordable housing in Princeton.

BOE incumbents Beth Behrend, the current board president, and Michele Tuck-Ponder, current vice president, are slated to participate along with challengers Adam Bierman, Hendricks Davis, Jean Durbin, Bill Hare, Paul Johnson, and Karen Lemon. The candidates have been asked to comment for four minutes each on their vision for the district’s future and the experience and skills they would bring to the job.

Emphasizing the importance of the moment and the fact that three of the eight candidates are African American, WJNA Co-Chair Leighton Newlin pointed out, “This comes at a time during a national pandemic when virtual education, tutorials through pods, internet access, and connectivity could further exacerbate the historical minority education achievement gap, making it intractable to address, adjust, or reverse.”

He continued, “For the first time in the history of the Board of Education there are three African Americans [Tuck-Ponder, Davis, and Johnson] out of the eight candidates seeking three seats. We think that’s significant, and we want to give not only them but all eight candidates exposure because we believe that we’re at a critical juncture for education in Princeton and we want the right leadership taking us into the future.”

In addition to emphasizing the minority education achievement gap and fears of its growth in an environment of virtual learning, Newlin said, “The School Board election is important for several reasons. There is also anticipated teacher growth with the affordable housing obligations that the municipality is under. There will be more housing and more children in the schools.”

He added, “We’re interested in knowing who these candidates are, looking at their varied experiences and skill sets that distinguish them from other candidates.”

The discussion on affordable housing may focus on a recent Princeton Council vote to amend the definition of an accessory dwelling unit to allow a primary unit and an accessory unit on a property to be owned separately instead of by just one owner.

“The new ordinance that approved accessory dwelling units in town could have major impact on individuals’ ability to age in place,” said Newlin. “At a critical time when African American home ownership is dwindling to the point of extinction, what options are left for longtime homeowners in W-J and other neighborhoods challenged by gentrification, zoning, yearly property tax revaluations, and financial interests of developers?”

He continued, “We are interested in getting an overview from municipal leadership and others on what their expectations are of the new ordinance’s impact on neighborhoods and on the ability of people to age in place and to address the fact that more people will be moving into Princeton. We want to make sure that, as these people move into Princeton, we maintain some level of diversity and inclusivity. It’s important how we move forward with smart growth for Witherspoon-Jackson and for all neighborhoods in Princeton, not just for people of color.”

Visit for the September 19, 9:30 a.m. Zoom meeting.