November 11, 2020

Behrend, Tuck-Ponder, Durbin Make Plans For PPS After Election Win

By Donald Gilpin

In what appears to be a vote of confidence in the School Board’s work over the past few years, incumbents Michele Tuck-Ponder and Beth Behrend, along with new candidate Jean Durbin, have established a commanding lead over the five other challengers in the race for three positions on the Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Board of Education (BOE).

The results will not be official until certified by the county clerk on November 23, as the Mercer County Board of Elections can continue to count the final ballots — mail-ins that arrived in the week after the November 3 Election Day and a few provisional ballots — through November 20.

At last count, Tuck-Ponder, currently BOE vice president, had won 5,279 votes (19.52 percent of the votes cast in last Tuesday’s election), Behrend, BOE president, had 5,127 votes (18.95 percent), and Durbin was in third place with 4,217 votes (15.59 percent).

Among the other contenders, Adam Bierman had garnered 3,004 votes (11.11 percent), Paul Johnson 2,864 votes (10.59 percent), Karen Lemon 2,639 (9.76 percent), Bill Hare 2,368 (8.75 percent), and Hendricks Davis 1,445 (5.34 percent). Each voter designated three choices  for the three open BOE seats.

Also on the ballot, Mark Freda was the winner in the uncontested race for Princeton mayor, and incumbents David Cohen and Leticia Fraga were unopposed in regaining their seats in the election for Princeton Council.

Freda will take over on January 1, 2021 from Liz Lempert, who has served as mayor of consolidated Princeton since 2012. She did not run for re-election.

“It will be my privilege to work for all the residents of Princeton,” Freda said in a press release. “Together we will address the issues and challenges before us. We will be open and transparent in our decision-making processes and in our actions. All of us are the same team   — the residents, the elected officials, and the town staff — our goals should all be the same. I look forward to our future and all of us working together.”

In discussing the BOE election, Behrend said she was “very pleased with the outcome that reflects the fact that the community appreciates the work that we’ve done in the past few years in
the school district and the proven results that we’ve had.”

She continued, “I feel that the community has recognized the work of the past few years and the challenges that we’ve had and the fact that we’ve been able to steer smoothly through them.”

Acknowledging that the race had been hotly, at times bitterly, contested, Behrend observed, “It  almost looked like the national stage where you had some people putting negative stuff out there. I wondered if other people would accept that at face value or if they would look beyond and actually look at our record, and I feel people did. And they watched the discussions and the debates and listened to us talk, and I appreciate that. I think people paid careful attention.”

She added, “I’m excited because we can now look past the election and put all of our energies back into ensuring that all the needs of the kids are met. We have a lot to do.”

Tuck-Ponder agreed that their record as leaders had been a significant factor in the voters’ decisions.  “My election, along with Beth Behrend and Jean Durbin, affirms that experienced leadership matters to our residents,” she wrote in an email.

“As we work our way through the pandemic and tackle the Board’s most important duty, selecting a new superintendent of schools, the message I am taking from voters is that we should make those decisions with equity and excellence for all students as a key priority,” Tuck-Ponder said.

Praised by Behrend for the “really strong skills and deep knowledge of the community” that she will bring to the Board, Durbin emphasized the importance of working together with the community, both in her campaign and in her future work with the BOE.

“What fueled my campaign’s success was a strong sense of community and a willingness to work collaboratively to support our excellent schools,” she said. “I tried to run a campaign that was based on active listening, empathy, and a desire to understand and gather information to help with problem solving. I worked hard to seek support from people across various communities within Princeton, and I know for a fact that many of my supporters and I did not agree one hundred percent on all of the issues.”

She continued, “A message I think was reinforced by this local election is that public education matters, and Princeton has terrific public schools that can be made even better if we all work together. We have to ensure that no one is left out of the success we achieve. And we have to strive to listen to our better angels when we disagree on how to solve problems.”

All three successful candidates expressed gratitude for the support that came from so many members of the community during the campaign. “The good will that was shared with me bolstered my spirits and strengthened my message and commitment to work hard to make our excellent schools even better,” said Durbin.

“People have been so supportive and encouraging and patient and flexible,” said Behrend. “I’m grateful for that. It makes it easier to get things done because we’re all in this together. We’re all trying to figure out something that’s totally unprecedented. They recognized that it’s complicated going forward. We’re still in the midst of a crisis and we need the seasoned leadership and continuity to keep moving forward. I feel that’s been recognized, and I appreciate that.  I’m honored that the results are looking like this.”

Behrend noted the BOE’s accomplishments in balancing the budget, implementing the initial referendum projects, initiating the pre-K program, starting to address concerns over equity, finding “an incredible leader” in Interim Superintendent Barry Galasso, and dealing with all the challenges of the pandemic.