March 29, 2023

Conflict Over PHS Principal Builds

By Donald Gilpin

As the Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Board of Education (BOE) prepared to approve the recommendation of Kathie Foster as Princeton High School interim principal, replacing Frank Chmiel, at Tuesday night’s BOE meeting, held after press time, a growing opposition movement had other ideas.

The meeting, held in person at the Princeton Middle School and also livestreamed on YouTube and recorded and posted on the district website, was expected to draw hundreds of students, parents, and other community members, most in support of the dismissed Chmiel and in opposition to PPS Superintendent Carol Kelley and the BOE.

There were two hours available for public comment, one early in the meeting and one at the end.

In a statement issued on Monday, March 27, Chmiel’s lawyers asserted that the BOE can choose to reinstate Chmiel as PHS principal over any opposition from the superintendent, provided they follow certain procedural requirements.

“We intend to fight for the renewal of Mr. Chmiel as principal of Princeton High School and pursue every avenue available to do so,” the lawyers, David P. Schroth and Ben Montenegro, stated. And the numerous supporters of Chmiel apparently plan to stay on board for the battle.

As of noon on Tuesday a student-initiated petition calling for Chmiel’s reinstatement had gathered more than 3,000 signatures, and a parent-initiated petition demanding Kelley’s resignation and Chmiel’s return had more than 2,000 signers.

A group of PPS parents has created and distributed about 90 lawn signs reading “We want Chmiel,” “Princeton Parents don’t support Board of Ed,” and “The parents of Princeton Public Schools have no confidence in Carol Kelley.”

Parents have also reportedly written directly to the BOE asking that Foster not be voted in at Tuesday night’s meeting and that Chmiel be taken off administrative leave and brought back, at least until the end of the year.

“The community is urging the Board to restore the public’s confidence” one parent wrote. ”We are concerned that this issue continues to divide the community.”

Chmiel’s lawyers explained the procedures whereby a BOE can override a superintendent’s recommendation. “Upon a recommendation for nonrenewal, the Board can override that recommendation after what is known as a Donaldson hearing for the employee,” they wrote.

The lawyers have requested from the Board a statement of reasons for Chmiel’s nonrenewal. When they receive a response they intend to request a Donaldson hearing during which Chmiel would have the opportunity to set forth his position as to why he feels he should be renewed. The Board would then decide whether to renew Chmiel as principal or to follow the superintendent’s recommendation to not renew.

In a March 26 response to an earlier statement from Chmiel’s lawyers, the BOE, in its own statement, reiterated that “because Mr. Chmiel has not waived his rights to privacy, the Board will continue to refrain from releasing information related to Mr. Chmiel’s personnel file.”

The statement also emphasized, “While the Board understands that community members will, at times, disagree about personnel decisions, it sincerely hopes that the community will continue to express their opinions in a respectful manner, without denigrating or interfering with the rights of others to express their own views.”

In another item on Tuesday night’s agenda, the BOE was expected to vote to approve Max Achtau as principal at Riverside Elementary School, replacing Interim Principal Nancy Whalen, starting in July. Achtau has been principal at Sunnybrae Elementary School in Hamilton since 2018.

On the subject of a different issue that has caused some controversy in the district — this one involving the elementary schools — Kelley announced on Tuesday that there would be no changes in the coming school year based on rising elementary enrollments.

“In an effort to minimize disruption, and to successfully manage transition, we will pause on moving any students between schools for the 2023-2024 school year while we partner with our school community on how best to move forward with long-range planning for 2024-2025 and beyond,” she wrote in an email to PPS families, parents, students, and staff.