October 10, 2018

Five BOE Candidates Exchange Ideas At League of Women Voters’ Forum

By Donald Gilpin

With the election just a month away, five candidates, including two incumbents, for three available seats on the Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Board of Education (BOE) exchanged ideas at a public forum last Thursday at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation on Cherry Hill Road.

In a 90-minute session sponsored by The Princeton League of Women Voters (LWV), incumbents Betsy Kalber Baglio and Dafna Kendal and new candidates Mary Clurman, Daniel J. Dart, and Brian McDonald presented their qualifications and answered questions on a wide range of subjects, many related to recent concerns about school finances and the facilities referendum proposal planned for December 11.

In a closing “lightning round,” where candidates were allowed to respond with only “yes” or “no,” the incumbents disagreed with the new contenders on two referendum-related questions, with Clurman and Dart doubting the demographic projections that support the need for expansion, and McDonald, Dart, and Clurman all claiming that the public had not been sufficiently informed about the referendum project and its costs.

On the other lightning round questions, all candidates agreed that the schools should not have armed security guards at entrances; that the Dual Language Immersion Program should be expanded; that PPS and the Princeton Charter School need to make greater efforts to work together; and that the district should create a citizens facilities advisory committee to assist the BOE.

Baglio, who has one son at Community Park Elementary and another at John Witherspoon Middle School and has served on the BOE for three years, emphasized the value of her experience on the BOE and as a public school teacher and her work as an education consultant. “My perspective is really important at this time,” she said. “I believe the Board would benefit from continuity of leadership, and I look forward to continuing the work I have begun.

Baglio argued for the value of a new 5/6 school and emphasized the progress the district has been making in transparency and communication with the community. She mentioned plans for a new website before the end of the year and other improvements in communication. “I’m a collaborator by nature,” she said, and she noted important progress that had been made through effective collaboration among staff, students, parents, community members, and the Board.

“Critical thinking is what we’re trying to teach kids,” said Mary Clurman, a retired Montessori teacher. ”We need to practice it ourselves. I wish these referendum ideas were more detailed.”

She emphasized the need for a new approach. ”The expertise on the Board is limited, and this town is full of experts. The community is the best resource that we have.” Questioning the credibility of the current Board and its referendum plans, Clurman called for more community outreach, more research on the referendum proposal, and greater student involvement in the whole process.

Dart, with one daughter who went through PPS and one daughter currently in fifth grade at Johnson Park Elementary, also expressed concern about the financial knowledge of the Board and pointed out his own background in business and finance. Dart, who has 30 years of experience in business, most recently as chief operating officer at Merrill Lynch Investment Managers, noted that the BOE had “a lot of education skills and experience, but not much business experience.”

Dart stated that he strongly supported the $27M referendum proposal that covered the critical facilities needs, but claimed that the additional call for a new 5/6 school and the acquisition of additional property “is not a well-thought-out plan. There are more cost effective solutions to handle growth and enrollment increases.” He added, “We should take our time. We would be piling new debt onto old debt. There’s no reason to rush.”

Dafna Kendal, who has one child at Littlebrook Elementary and one at JWMS and chairs the BOE facilities committee, noted some of the accomplishments during her three-year tenure and pointed out some of the challenges ahead. “I’m proud of the work that has been done and look forward to the work that needs to be done,” she said.

Among the positive changes, she cited the later start time at Princeton High School, the focus on student wellness, dialogues on race and equity, new personnel hired, successful negotiation of labor union contracts, voluntary contributions from local institutions, and the ongoing work on the referendum plans.

“We need to do more to have an engaged community,” McDonald stated, noting his background in public finance and on a facilities planning group at Princeton University. “Much more active involvement with the community is needed. We need to work hard, creatively, and together to find a way forward.”

With three children who have gone through PPS, where the youngest is now a sophomore at Princeton High School, McDonald emphasized, “Our schools are now at a critical point in their history.” Agreeing with Clurman and Dart that the referendum process needed more community involvement, McDonald concluded, “We need to take more time to bring more people to the table. This is a community that loves to be engaged and involved.”

McDonald, a sculptor and designer who also advises nonprofits on governance and fundraising, served as vice president for development at Princeton University for eight years and before that worked in public finance.

A video of the forum is available online at Princeton TV and on the Princeton LWV’s website. Scheduled airtimes on Princeton TV are October 10 at 10 a.m., October 13 at 2 p.m., October 15 at 4 p.m., October 18 at 12 p.m., October 20 at 8 p.m., and October 21 at 3 p.m. The candidates will attend a student-organized forum sponsored by Not In Our Town Princeton on Sunday, October 14 at 7 p.m. at the Princeton YWCA.