October 29, 2014

Candidates Vying for District Seats Present Their Views to Parents

About 40 parents turned out Monday for a moderated Meet the Candidates panel discussion at John Witherspoon Middle School.

They had come to hear the four candidates, Justin Doran, Afsheen Shamsi, Fern Spruill, and Connie Witter, who are vying for three seats on the Board of Education, present their views and answer questions from the floor.

Only two of the four candidates showed, incumbent Ms. Shamsi and first time candidate Ms. Spruill. Mr. Doran had a business meeting and was unable to attend. He sent along his answers to a set of questions that had been distributed in advance of the meeting. Ms. Witter was a no show.

Ms. Shamsi is the only candidate already on the Board. She is seeking election for a second term. The two other vacancies stem from Dan Haughton and Tim Quinn, each of whom has served two full terms.

School Board Candidates’ Night has been sponsored by the the Princeton PTO Council and Special Education PTO for some 16 years.

Designed to offer the community a chance to listen to and ask questions of candidates before next week’s election, Tuesday, November 4, the event was moderated by former Board member Walter Bliss, who read Mr. Doran’s responses in his absence. After giving brief opening statements, each candidate read their responses to the pre-distributed questions and then took questions from the audience. Topics ranged from mainstreaming for special education students, Princeton’s achievement gap, the common core curriculum, to which Ms. Shamsi and Ms. Spruill read their previously written answers, and Mr. Bliss reading for Mr. Doran.

For Ms. Shamsi, one of the challenges facing the district is the pressure to get high grades and the effect that less than perfect grades have on students. . “We need to teach our children resiliency,” she said, citing a district study conducted by former Superintendent Judy Wilson showing that only 25 percent of students at PHS reported feeling happy with themselves.

Ms. Spruill spoke about inclusiveness and the need for electronic access for all students and their families.

The first question from parents concerned a perceived lack of communication between teachers and district administrators, found to be especially troubling given the current ongoing contract negotiations between the district and the Princeton Regional Education Association (PREA). Ms. Shamsi agreed that a better job could be done by the district in this regard and commended new Superintendent Steve Cochrane for his “listening tours.”

One parent who had attended two recent meetings, asked why Board members seemed to ignore the people in the room. Ms. Shamsi, as the only member among the candidates, responded that the Board is “listening” and while she was unable to comment on current negotiations she reiterated budget constraints and a $1.6 million short fall.

This prompted a conversation on rising enrollment because of new construction in Princeton and the impact this might have on class sizes.

Malachi Wood, a teacher himself, asked Ms. Shamsi about her reported interest in raising funds for the district from public/private partnerships, which brought up the stellar work done by the Princeton Education Forum in raising hundreds of thousands for Princeton’s schools.

Parental frustration with the school Board over the recent contract negotiations was a constant undercurrent, which one parent expressed thus: “We have to settle this now and give teachers what they are asking for; as a board member it’s your job to get creative and find the money, whether through public/private partnership of whatever.”

The Candidates

An Institutional Equity Trader with the Royal Bank of Canada, Mr Doran has five children in the district. He describes himself as a sports enthusiast and was an active member on the Board of Princeton Little League for many years.

Ms. Shamsi, who has served on the Board of Education since May 2011, has a son at Princeton High School and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in strategic communications at Columbia University. She serves on several board committees including external affairs, personnel, facilities, and student achievement, and has helped develop the district’s communications plan and update its crisis communications plan.

Ms. Spruill, who has worked and volunteered in Princeton for many years, describes herself as a community volunteer. Her family has lived in the town for generations and she has served as chair and vice-chair of the district’s Minority Education Committee, from 2007-2011. “I have seen the schools evolve and I understand the district’s strengths and its weaknesses,” she said.

Ms. Witter, a mortgage underwriter working with first time homebuyers, has three children in the district.

For a Q&A with each of the candidates by the League of Women Voters of the Princeton Area, visit: www.lwvprinceton.org/voters-guides/archives/princeton-school-board-candidates-2014.