“I’m honored by the level of support I’ve received from this community and that inspired me to continue this pursuit of reinstatement,” Frank Chmiel told Princeton Perspectives as he sat for his first exclusive interview since being put on administrative leave in mid-March.
Many in the community have been seeking reasons as to why the Princeton High School Principal was put on leave and for what reasons his contract is not being renewed. Others, while trusting the system wonder why he hasn’t yet waived his right to privacy so that those involved can speak more openly and freely. Frank Chmiel is now sharing more. Beyond the written statement he put out to the public in March, he wants to explain more about himself, the situation and to address some of the information and misinformation that’s on people’s minds.
Beyond Chmiel, the Princeton Board of Education (BOE) and Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Superintendent Dr. Carol Kelley are involved and thus far told the public they are unable to share any details about this situation without violating his right to privacy. Still, Princeton Perspectives reached out, asking them to expand on their previous statements and to help clarify some of the procedures and logistics.
Some people have questioned what the Board’s role has been thus far. BOE President Dafna Kendal confirmed that the Board was informed of Kelley’s decisions regarding Chmiel’s employment but has not had an opportunity to vote on anything yet and therefore has not taken any formal action. We also reached out to Kelley for more clarification and did not receive a response to our requests.
Chmiel was interviewed with his attorney, David Schroth, at the offices of Destribats Campbell Staub & Schroth, LLC.
Sitting around an office conference table, Chmiel seemed shaken by the occurrences of the previous month, but he was glad to discuss them. First and foremost, he noted he can’t consider waiving his privacy until he knows the cause, which will be when receives the written statement of reasons from PPS for his nonrenewal, due to him by April 20th. Schroth later added that they “can’t speculate regarding the handling of the Donaldson hearing,” where Chmiel can contest, in public if he chooses, the reasons in the written statement for nonrenewal and ask the Board to be renewed, noting that “at this moment we simply don’t know what kind of case this is.”
So, what more can we learn now about Chmiel’s departure?
Schroth confirmed that the district sought Chmiel’s resignation as early as January. When he did not agree to resign, Chmiel was then put on leave around March 17th. He further confirmed that Chmiel has been formally advised of nonrenewal at PHS, which triggered his option to request the written statement of reasons, submitted to PPS on March 21st. The two can still only speculate why the district has chosen not to renew him and why he has been put on leave. Board President Kendal told Princeton Perspectives, “The statement is being prepared and should be sent out next week.”
Reasons are not required to be put on leave, neither is a Board vote. Similarly, when a superintendent opts not to renew an educational contract or place an employee on leave, she simply needs to inform the board, there is no vote required.
Board President Kendal confirmed, “The superintendent notified us of her decision. Board members always have the opportunity to share their thoughts with her. All 10 board members agreed with the superintendent’s decision.” The board can vote to renew Chmiel, if it chooses, if and when he requests a Donaldson Hearing.
“I haven’t been given the firm reason of why they wanted me to resign, I’m reading between the lines,” he shared. “I still do not have an official answer as to why I’m on administrative leave. As popular as I am with faculty, staff and students, if I stayed around and they wanted to move on and find another principal, that would complicate things. I do the Chmiel Spiel every morning, they hear from me every day, see me in halls every day walking around. It would be difficult for them to move ahead. People would get angry.”
It appears that has happened, nonetheless. The outcry is beyond that which happened last year when rumors swirled that Chmiel might not be renewed. Only last year, he was.
“In talking with Dr. Kelley, she had not said to me last year ‘you’re not getting renewed’. That statement was not made or written to me. What happened last year was the board voted to renew me. My name was on for renewal just like any faculty, staff or administrator,” Chmiel explains.
Rumor Versus Reality
While he tries to decipher what will be in the written statement of reasons, the public is doing the same. It’s been stated Chmiel is known for creating a strong sense of community spirit, for his outreach and for his connection with students. But there are many things the community is still questioning. This interview aims to address the various topics being discussed, to clarify fact from fiction.
One topic on many peoples’ minds has been why, if he has done nothing illegal as Schroth has confirmed, did Chmiel stop working with his NJPSA (NJ Principals and Supervisors Association) union attorneys and begin working with attorneys David Schroth and Ben Montenegro?
“NJPSA attorneys, who automatically you go to first when you need support, they were very good to me and provided a lot of good advice about administration and law and the processes. They were a real sounding board for me,” Chmiel explains. “But I decided obtaining attorneys who have experience in litigation and education law would be good to transition to from the NJPSA attorneys, who could only take me through a certain stage, because I don’t know exactly where this process will go.”
Before Princeton, Chmiel was a tenured principal at Franklin High School, having served five years as vice principal before that. Some have questioned what his experience was like at Franklin, maybe there were signs.
“My performance reviews were excellent from the superintendent, assistant superintendent and other members of the cabinet,” Chmiel recalls. “Faculty and staff really liked me and appreciated the stability I brought; my acumen with instruction, pedagogy, growth mindset, always finding ways to build up staff, recognize them, and promote a positive school environment. They and the central office trusted me, were there if I had questions, were responsive and provided supports. I was definitely not asked to leave Franklin.”
But Princeton was where he had lived for 28 years. It was where his older daughters had attended school from start to finish and where his younger sons are currently enrolled as well. Though he thought he’d spend the remainder of his career at Franklin, when the opportunity opened up at Princeton High School, he felt he had to throw his hat into the ring.
“Teachers started leaving after I left [Franklin], school counselors left after I left, and 5 of them came to PHS saying they wanted to work with me again,” Chmiel notes. “I was coming to serve. It was a risk; I was giving up tenure in a place I was valued and coming into the unknown. But I thought I could make a difference.”
Chmiel at PHS
To many that have spoken over the past month, he appeared to. Chmiel prides himself on the efforts he made to reach out to different communities amongst the school population, to share their cultures and heritage with others. One such group were the Latine, working with students, faculty, staff and family members to recognize Hispanic Heritage Month which included a day of assemblies, dancing, spoken word, presentations and more.
“We’d arranged for them [Latine students involved] to eat lunch at a different time to be available to attend and organize everything and one student said, ‘I never realized how many of us there were.’ Talk about empowerment, that’s just one thing. I didn’t feel like central office acknowledged it. I followed patterns I learned at Franklin, built teams of people, empower them, give them a voice and use skills to keep team together. That takes a lot of leadership skill. We did the same thing for Black History 365,” shares Chmiel.
It’s been stated frequently that Chmiel knew the students and their names, and while doing so was meaningful to them, it was also a great asset to his work and days spent at school. He explains it was a byproduct of spending time in the hallways to check the building for repairs, safety and security. Responding to the rumor that perhaps he’s not being renewed because of several recent fights at PHS, Chmiel says the public perception about school safety simply isn’t true.
“There haven’t been several, that’s a complete misunderstanding. There have been less instances of fights than there were last year,” adding fights are in fact rare at PHS, and perhaps seem to have gained recognition because of video that was shared amongst the community. And with the rumor that weak security has been his problem, he contends he’s been working to strengthen PHS’ open campus since he arrived.
“I want to honor the culture of openness and autonomy, but we’re living in a different time. There does need to be more security, but you don’t change that overnight. A big part of that process is building positive relationships with all the stakeholders. That’s what I’d been investing in my first year, so they trust me when I talk about increased security measures, such as wearing school IDs this year.”
Chmiel explains he put together a PHS Safety team, that included other administrators, building monitors, district personnel, teachers and students to work towards this goal. He’d also formed a Student Advisory Committee to ensure their voices were heard.
The Past Month
He’s spent much time recalling these contributions while he awaits the written statement of reasons, to further clarify for himself and hopefully the public about why he was not renewed. While doing so, he has found the silver lining in the situation. Vigorous work as a principal meant long hours, and the leave has allowed Chmiel time to help his wife take care of her elderly grandmother that lives with them. It’s forced him to slow down, read and study. But most importantly it’s provided time to drive his youngest children to school and be there for afternoons at home.
It might be easier to bow his head and move on to find another job as principal in another district, and some in the community have wondered why he doesn’t just do that. Schroth notes that it’s become clear that thousands of people are showing support for Chmiel, not a small group of parents. Hundreds rallied outside PHS on March 20th, and more are expected at a protest rally in Hinds Plaza this Sunday, April 16th at 1pm. More than 3,000 also signed a petition asking for his reinstatement. That deep support feels to them like a reason to stick around and fight.
“This fight is worth it for me because I care about Princeton Public Schools. The students obviously want me there as their educational leader, the parents want me there as the educational leader. I’ve built many strong relationships with faculty and staff, and I know every faculty and staff members first and last name. That level of attention and how to support their growth as educators, they felt it was wonderful,” Chmiel details. “When I go past that building and see that collegiate gothic edifice and I know about the extraordinary people in there, and that I give my all and then some to serve that educational community. That was planned to be my final stop. That’s a good enough reason to fight this fight.”
Sometime before April 20th Chmiel expects to receive the written statement of reasons for his nonrenewal, and then with the help of his attorneys, will evaluate them. Chmiel will, if he chooses, then have 10 days to request a Donaldson Hearing where he can appear with lawyers and witnesses to try and convince the BOE to offer him renewal, which he can opt to have private or open to the public. This hearing must be scheduled within 30 calendar days of his request and the BOE’s final determination must then be provided within 3 working days of the hearing. So, at the latest, the community and Chmiel should know what the future holds by June 2nd.
“I really care about our community and our local high school. I’d love to be there to serve for many years to come and hopefully it works out that way,” says Chmiel.
While a hyperlocal journalist, Lisa Jacknow is also a private resident. She is part of the Princeton community, parent to a child at Princeton High School, who has at times shared her personal thoughts with the Board of Education and Superintendent Kelley.
Lisa values honest and balanced journalism above all else, and always works to cover all sides to a story. She spent years working in national and local news in and around New York City before moving to Princeton. Working as both a TV producer and news reporter, Lisa came to this area to focus on the local news of Mercer County at WZBN-TV. Over the years she got immersed in the Princeton community, serving leadership roles at local schools in addition to volunteering for other local non-profits. In her free time, Lisa loves to spend time with her family, play tennis, sing and play the piano. A graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, Lisa was raised just north of Boston, Massachusetts but has lived in the tri-state area since college. She is excited to be Founding Editor and head writer for Princeton Perspectives!