Eight School Board Candidates Share Visions of PPS Future in WJNA Forum
By Donald Gilpin
Gaps in achievement and opportunity and challenges of affordability were in the spotlight Saturday morning, September 19, as eight candidates for three open spots on the Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Board of Education (BOE) shared their visions for the future of Princeton schools, in a virtual forum sponsored by the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Association (WJNA).
Incumbents, current BOE President Beth Behrend and Vice President Michele Tuck-Ponder, and challengers Adam Bierman, Hendricks Davis, Jean Durbin, Bill Hare, Paul Johnson, and Karen Lemon, emphasized the need for equity, access, and accountability in the schools and the importance of closing the achievement gap, with African American, Hispanic, special education, and economically disadvantaged students often falling behind, at least on standardized test results.
The eight candidates offered an array of proposals to help bridge those gaps, and an assortment of plans to pay for those initiatives with minimal impact on already-high Princeton property taxes.
WJNA Co-Chair Leighton Newlin, who moderated the proceedings, emphasized the critical nature of the present moment “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.”
In introducing the candidates for two-minute opening statements, later followed by their answers to specific questions about equity and affordability and short closing remarks, Newlin added, “We are at a crossroads for our educational endeavors for the children of Princeton.”
Behrend, an attorney seeking a second term on the BOE, pointed out her “proven track record of leadership over the past two years, what the Board needs during a pandemic and in the years to come.” She noted a number of achievements over the past three years and significant progress in leveling the playing field for all students, including the introduction of a pre-K program, a successful restorative justice approach to discipline, instruction coaches for elementary students, technology initiatives, and more.
“My vision,” Behrend said, “is that we become a true lighthouse district for other schools and a beacon for other districts regionally and nationally. We have a diverse community, but we all have a shared value. We all care about our kids.”
Bierman, long-time Princeton resident and a teacher at the State Division of Children and Families, criticized the “wastefulness” of recent PPS expenditures and emphasized the need for “cost-effective and affordable solutions to enrollment growth.” He added, “We have to learn to live within our means and stop wasteful spending. I favor teachers over expensive facilities.” He also called for greater transparency and respect on the current Board.
Bierman pointed out several cost-saving measures he would recommend and noted that Princeton has a “unique opportunity to become affordable” with the maturing of bonds in 2022 and 2023, “which will save $4.5 million in debt repayment if no new referendum bonds are issued.”
Davis, who originally came to Princeton to attend Princeton Theological Seminary and has lived here for 37 years, noted the “tremendous array of resources in Princeton that can be brought to bear to make this the best education system in the state and the country.” He called for the whole community to be “partners in this endeavor.”
Davis pointed out a “lack of attention to students’ progress in the early grades and the need to ‘identify and know students who are lagging and come up with a plan.” He also mentioned the importance of focusing on hiring and increasing the diversity of teachers. Davis offered cost-cutting suggestions, but cautioned, “that we not try to find ways to reduce budgets that are detrimental to our having an excellent and equitable education for our children.”
Durbin, a lawyer with a track record in social work policy and many years of service to the community and schools, cited the 2018 district equity audit as the starting point “to help us know where we have been, where we are now, and where we want to go.” She pointed out the importance of culturally responsive teaching and an additional list of goals to help achieve equity in the schools.
Emphasizing the importance of closing achievement and opportunity gaps, Durbin emphasized that Princeton must “measure the correct things when we talk about closing the gaps, to go beyond test scores, using multiple measures to assess children’s growth.” She noted, “We must make it more of a collaborative journey and less of a competitive race, and this will benefit all of our students.”
Johnson, a Princeton native, owner of Inspire Sports Club and coach to many student athletes in the area, called on the community to do better for its young people. “Enough is enough,” he said. “We have to do better. We have digressed from our values and standards.”
Johnson recommended more community outreach and community partners, an aggressive push to establish more private funding, and an endowment and an alumni fund for the schools
He continued, “We shouldn’t see lines of disparity between groups. Certainly we’ve made strides, but we haven’t tried wholeheartedly to implement these racial literacy programs. We’re way behind. We’re failing our kids. We have to be leaders. We have to stop making excuses and step into the future and be leaders. The time is now.”
Running on a slate with Johnson and Lemon, Hare, an engineer and patent attorney, focused his opening remarks on a graph of average passing rates for different subgroups on a 2019 standardized math test. The graph showed a significant disparity between white, Asian, and mixed race students as opposed to African American, Hispanic, special education, and economically disadvantaged students.
“I’m hoping you’re going to get mad,” Hare said. “Test results have an impact. We can’t ignore standardized test results. I was on the Board until January, too frustrated at the inability to make changes, particularly in terms of cost savings.” Hare stepped down at the end of last year after one term on the BOE.
Hare highlighted the need for creativity in addressing the challenges for PPS. “Those gaps keep going on and we need to get creative,” he said. “We need to get creative with finances. We need to bring in a superintendent who looks at our district and wants to solve stuff in a creative manner.”
Lemon, a 10-year resident of Princeton, who recently retired as an executive at AT&T, cited her experience in business and the importance of both affordability and excellence in education. “We want an excellent education for all students, but we don’t have that today. I have the passion, skills, and the expertise to get something done in addressing
student achievement and equity.”
Lemon noted a number of initiatives that would cut costs. “We have to do multiple things at the same time,’ she said. “I do want to hold the line on taxes, but I would never do that at the expense of student achievement. We can become much more efficient and do both — hold the line on efficiency and meet the needs of our students.”
Tuck-Ponder, former Princeton Township mayor, Princeton Public Housing Authority commissioner, and a 30-year resident of Princeton, highlighted her focus on equity during her term on the BOE. “I look at every single thing we do through the lens of equity,” she said. “Hiring, budgeting, programs, policies, everything. If this is a district that claims to have equity as a value, we have to live it and show by what we do that equity is a priority.”
She applauded the many ideas of her colleagues, but emphasized the need for fiscal responsibility and noted that the BOE has control over only a small percentage of the overall budget. “Cutting taxes and providing equity are not mutually exclusive,” she said. “It is about focus, measuring outcomes and being accountable and sometimes having the courage to figure out that you can’t do everything all at once.”
The candidates will face off again on Wednesday, September 30 at 7:30 p.m. in a virtual forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Princeton Area and Princeton Community Television. The November 3 election will take place mainly as a vote-by-mail election.
In the second part of the WJNA meeting Anton (Tony) Nelessen, professor of architecture and urban design at Rutgers University and a longtime Princeton resident, spoke on affordable housing, zoning, sustainability, and smart growth, including conclusions from his extensive study of the Witherspoon-Jackson community and a vision for the future.
“People in this neighborhood and other neighborhoods are impacted by inappropriate zoning,” he said. “Zoning is the critical issue that will affect affordability — that becomes so important to retain diversity in this area.”
Nelessen emphasized the unfairness of the zoning codes and the complexity of the process residents must undergo to make improvements. Recommending that concerned residents attend a virtual affordable housing meeting with Princeton Council on October 3, Nelessen offered a number of suggestions to address the challenges of smart growth and affordability.
“Most of the stuff that people want, that is reasonable, well thought out, and visionary from their perspective, you can’t have because the zoning won’t allow it, and the government refuses to change the zoning,” he said. “That’s something for you to think about.”