May 10, 2023

Sunken Cost Phenomenon is Sinking Princeton’s School District

To the Editor:

The sunken cost phenomenon is plaguing our community. What is it, and why should we care?

The sunken cost phenomenon is a cognitive bias that causes people to continue investing time, effort, and resources in a decision that no longer is logical or productive. It is why: Couples stay in marriages that fizzled out years ago; employees hang on to jobs that are sucking their souls; and companies invest in subsidiaries that consistently generate losses.

Unfortunately, the Princeton community is locked in a vicious cycle of sunken cost phenomenon. It is causing: Neighbors to be enemies; friends to be foes; and teachers, administrators, parents, and students to be stressed and confused.

The good news is that a simple cure exists. However, it requires all parties involved to stop digging in their heels. Instead, we need to cut our losses on the time, emotions, and resources we have invested in the dismissal of Princeton High School (PHS) Principal Frank Chmiel. More importantly, we should refuse to continue digging a deeper hole for ourselves.

All this pain could be brought to an end if the following occurs: The Princeton Board of Education (BOE) votes to reinstate Mr. Chmiel as the PHS principal after the upcoming Donaldson hearing; Dr. Carol Kelley changes her position regarding Mr. Chmiel; and Dr. Kelley and Principal Chmiel learn to work together.

If this occurs, we will be able to focus on the fun things, such as planning our summer vacations. The BOE and school administrators will be able to focus on strategic plans that will have a greater generational impact. The alternative is that parents will feel the need to stay put this summer and take turns keeping the pressure on the BOE until the November election. The BOE and school administrators will continue to be embroiled in and distracted by controversy.

Understandably, this is easier said than done. To give up on our positions is antithetical to everything we have been taught and teach our children about perseverance with quotes such as, “Winners don’t give in” and “Never give up.”

The danger of the sunken cost dilemma is that the longer we postpone cutting losses, the harder it becomes. In this case, it is important to reevaluate the situation and ultimate decision based on newly available information. As Maya Angelou famously said, “When you know better, do better.”

The more critical lesson that arises from this is that we are human. We all make mistakes. Some are more public than others. The more public they are, the harder it is to disregard the sunken cost. The truth is, as humans, we also love the underdog story and the tales of redemption. We love to be surprised when “supposed” villains undo harm and become heroes. Then, all is possible in the world.

If we continue this dissension, our grandchildren may view our actions as perverse. Instead, let’s turn our focus toward how we can unite to build greater return for our community for the sake of our children.

Z. Lisa Potter
Gordon Way