March 22, 2023

BOE Tries to Move On, But Resistance Continues

“WE WANT CHMIEL!”: About 170 demonstrators — students and parents — at Princeton High School (PHS) on Monday afternoon called on the Princeton Public Schools Board and superintendent to rescind their decision to replace Frank Chmiel as PHS principal. (Photo by Charles R. Plohn)

By Donald Gilpin

“They’re presenting this as a done deal. This is anything but a done deal. It’s up to us to keep the pressure on,” said the father of a Princeton High School (PHS) student speaking at Monday’s rally at PHS to a spirited crowd of about 170 parents and students supporting Frank Chmiel, who last Friday, March 17 was replaced as PHS principal.   

Meanwhile Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Superintendent Carol Kelley and the Board of Education (BOE), obviously seeing the ouster of Chmiel as a done deal, were moving on, with a Monday afternoon announcement that Kathie Foster would be recommended at last night’s BOE meeting for appointment as the PHS interim principal through the remainder of the school year.

Last night’s regularly scheduled meeting of the BOE, taking place on Zoom after press time, promised to bring the conflicting camps into direct confrontation, though little movement in their conflicting positions was anticipated. 

The first hour of the meeting, from 6 to 7 p.m., was to be devoted to public commentary. Then, after the Board conducted its regularly scheduled business, there would be the opportunity for further public commentary. 

Based on the response displayed at Monday’s rally and in public media, many speakers at last night’s Zoom meeting were expected to support Chmiel and denounce the actions of the BOE and superintendent.

The BOE, it was anticipated, would mainly listen and probably reiterate the statement issued by Kelley earlier in the day that despite its “sincere goal to lead with transparency, some situations limit the information that can be provided because of the privacy rights of others.”

Kelley’s statement went on say, “What we can share is that when top leadership changes are made, Human Resources, the Board, and I consider every option to ensure teaching and learning experiences remain intact for all students and staff. We want to assure you that we made this decision after considerable thought and discussion.”

She continued, “We remain committed to providing a safe and positive learning environment for everyone in our district. To the extent that anyone is alleging wrongdoing on behalf of the Board of Education, or the district administration, the Board denies any wrongdoing.”

In a statement issued a day earlier, Kelley responded to the demonstration, praising the students for the manner in which they expressed their dissent. “Student voice is something that we value and encourage here in Princeton,” she wrote. ”I applaud our students who participated, as they did so with the utmost maturity and respect.”

The teachers’ union, in a Sunday evening posting on its Facebook page, called on members to “let the Board of Education’s process take its course.”  The statement continued, “The current Board of Education has always put the best interests of the children first and has been supportive of PREA (Princeton Regional Education Association). Therefore we will continue to trust and support the Board of Education’s good intentions for the students of the district.”

More than 2,600 who have signed an online petition calling for the Board to rescind Chmiel’s termination, along with students and parents at Monday’s rally, and many others, are apparently not convinced nor willing to see Chmiel’s departure as a done deal.

Carrying signs calling for transparency, accountability, and the reinstatement of Chmiel as principal and chanting “We want Chmiel,” speakers at the PHS rally repeatedly spoke of Chmiel’s sincere concern for the students, his understanding of and engagement with them, and his ability to create a sense of community.

“Mr. Chmiel is the best principal we ever had,” said one student. “He pushed himself and he pushed all of us. He made sure he knew who everyone was. He makes us feel heard. He makes us feel valued. Why would anyone say no to that?”

Many speakers — parents and students — criticized the BOE and superintendent’s action, questioning their rationale and process in replacing Chmiel.

According to a statement issued Tuesday by Chmiel, he was asked to resign, and when he refused, at least until he was ready, he was put on paid administrative leave, presumably until his contract would not be renewed at the end of the year. He does not have tenure in the district.

Pointing out the widespread support that he has received, Chmiel’s statement claimed that he was not asked to resign because of his performance, but because of a few who “feel I may not be the right fit.” He also cited “retaliation” and “sending a message of who’s in charge” as reasons for his dismissal.

Foster, who was up for appointment as interim PHS principal at last night’s meeting, was formerly superintendent of the Robbinsville Public School District from 2016 to 2020 and served as PPS interim assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in 2022.

In an email to the PPS community, Kelley noted that Foster “has the advantage of knowing our schools and our district well.” She added, “Dr. Foster is highly respected among educators in our area and throughout New Jersey.”

Prior to serving as Robbinsville superintendent, Foster was assistant superintendent in Robbinsville and principal at Pond Road Middle School. She received her doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Pennsylvania, her master’s degree in education administration from Rider University, and her bachelor’s degree from Hope College in Michigan.