With just a few weeks left of summer, it is time to start thinking about heading back to school. Governor Phil Murphy announced last Friday that masks will be mandatory in K-12 school buildings at the start of the school year. While the constant variations of COVID could prompt protocols to change again before or during the start of school, at Princeton Public Schools (PPS) there are also numerous personnel changes and proposals that could affect local students and Princeton taxpayers alike. With a new superintendent, two new principals and a new referendum on the table, the school year is ready to begin.
REFERENDUM ON THE HORIZON
A new Health and Safety Referendum for PPS could be approved as early as January 2022, if that’s what Princeton voters want. At its July 27th meeting, the Princeton Board of Education (PPS BOE) voted 8-1 to authorize district administration to submit a proposal of facilities projects to the New Jersey Department of Education (Deborah Bronfeld was the dissenting vote, voicing concerns the district may be rushing into things). The hope is that the state will offset approximately 1/3 of the cost, the rest to be covered through a $17.5m referendum for a 20-year bond.
“This proposed referendum is consistent with our commitment to properly steward our physical and financial capital and, most importantly, to ensure that our schools are healthy and safe for all of our students, our teachers and our staff,” states Susan Kanter, Operations Committee Co-Chair, PPS BOE. “These needs have been deemed urgent by the administration and delays can only lead to on-going repairs, building damage and a delay to our desired solar project.”
Through ongoing inventory of all school facilities and systems, PPS administration identified a list of repairs and replacements that are overdue or needed soon. The assessments found roofs at Littlebrook, Community Park and parts of the high school are severely leaking and the remaining three school’s roofs are coming to the end of their useful lives. PPS would like to replace the roofs as soon as possible (starting with the leaky three next summer) and make all six school roof’s solar-ready. Additionally, deteriorating masonry and leaking tourets at Princeton High School (PHS), rotted siding at two elementary schools, old skylights at Johnson Park, many gutters in need of replacing and approximately 27 outdated HVAC units are in the proposal.
Like most school boards, PPS BOE only keeps about $2-4m in capital reserve. The BOE explains projects like this benefit from being funded through referendums to save taxpayers money.
“Doing the work through a referendum qualifies for significant support from the state which makes this the most economical and fiscally responsible way to do work. Because we have past debt maturing this February and the following February, taxpayers will experience no increase in the tax levy associated with debt service,” explains Kanter.
Princeton schools are still undergoing work from the last referendum, which was approved by voters in 2018. Before school begins in September, it is expected that the HVAC installation at Johnson Park, library renovation at Littlebrook and the guidance suite renovation and refurbishment at PHS should be completed. In September, the restrooms by the PHS athletic fields should get finished as well. The larger PHS renovations, including adding a floor and flexible learning spaces, are expected to run through late fall or early winter. This would mean all previous referendum projects should be finished before a new referendum vote is taken on January 25, 2022.
“The ongoing assessment and repair of our facilities is necessary as failing roofs and equipment need to be replaced,” said Matt Bouldin, Business Administrator for Princeton Public Schools. “In order to do work in the summer 2022, it is important to get the referendum passed as soon as possible. There are long lead times with both NJ DOE approvals and construction bid/awards of work to be performed.”
There is hope the cost of the project may come in even lower than the proposed $17.5m referendum request, with energy savings programs covering some costs at the middle and high schools. Most of the assessments, deemed essential to prevent mold and structural damage at PPS schools, were confirmed by experts as well.
By late October it is expected the approvals will be back from the state, allowing the PPS BOE to vote at its November 16th meeting to approve the cost letter and authorize the specifics of the bond proposal and a special election. The BOE Operations committee invites community members to attend its meetings (posted on the website calendar) to learn more and ask questions. There are also plans to offer evening or weekend meetings to accommodate taxpayer’s schedules.
As of July 1, Dr. Carol Kelley began her tenure as the newly hired Superintendent for the district. Dr. Kelley had departed the Garden State to serve six years as superintendent for a district just outside of Chicago, Illinois, and is excited to be back in New Jersey to help move our children forward.
“It’s been a challenging time for sure because of the pandemic, but honestly for a lot of our students, school has been a challenging time, period,” explains Kelley. “While academics are really important, right now I’m primarily focused on our relationships. I am focused that every student feels known, nurtured and valued. I’m focused on every student feeling they have an adult in their corner and their voices are heard.”
Dr. Kelley is eager not just to go back to how things were, but to analyze everything as a means to learn what works in our district, what doesn’t and how we can do better for each student. She is nearly half-way through her 100 day “Listening Tour,” which she embarked on immediately upon arrival. Meeting with students, parents, staff, local officials and more, she is trying to listen to people’s voices and gather data to try and put successful structures and systems into place.
“Involving them in the process of creating those solutions and getting feedback of how things are going not only helps us to get that buy-in and support, but also will help to sustain whatever the changes may be,” Kelley contends. “And it will make some of the changes necessary for our students more palatable for those who may not feel that change is needed.”
One of the first new things Kelley did was bring PPS into the Better Equitable Learning Environments (BELE) Network, a national educational equity project. Through this, district leaders have been connected to a cohort of other figureheads, and students have been connected as well. Kelley worked to get youth invited to BELE Youth Symposiums this month to help develop ideas they’d like to see within PPS.
Equity, to overcome barriers based on race, socioeconomic background, gender, and learning differences, is a key goal for Kelley. She contends equity not only means providing support to students that need it but also preparing staff to sufficiently provide enrichment to students that know and understand a content area very well.
In addition to the data points and information she collects, Superintendent Kelley is looking to create advisory boards, including those of student voices, to help her along the way. She feels the pandemic gave us a chance to really reflect.
“I definitely want to use what we learned, in terms of making connections, seeing the importance of relationships and social interaction, to help better equip our classrooms and schools to meet the whole child needs of every learner,” adds Kelley.
A focus on equity was started under her fulltime predecessor, Steve Cochrane, who led the district from January 2014 until June of last year. From July 2020 through this past June, Barry Galasso served as the interim, guiding us through the pandemic and while the search for Dr. Kelley was underway.
Though she has been extremely busy learning the lay of the land since arriving, family is everything to Dr. Kelley. If she has any downtime, you may find her reading a romance novel or listening to Earth, Wind & Fire or Stevie Wonder, her favorite musicians. While her father’s hometown in Wilmington, NC, is the best place she’s ever visited, she is very excited to be in Princeton, as downtown Nassau Street ranks a very close 2nd.
ADDITIONAL SCHOOL LEADERSHIP
Beyond physical needs, the district is having school staffing updates as well. There has been a lot of turnover at Princeton High School, but as Dr. Kelley puts it, “a new team means new opportunities.” And the new team is coming together.
PHS Principal Jessica Baxter was in the role for just 18 months when she left in January, and Jared Warren then stepped up from his assistant principal role to finish out the year as acting principal. He has since left the district and PPS’s former Supervisor of Humanities (Gr. 7-12), Stephanie Greenberg, is moving into the assistant principal role he vacated. Leading the high school administration is now Frank Chmiel. A former Montgomery High School teacher, Chmiel spent the past nine years in leadership at nearby Franklin High School in Somerset, as vice principal then principal.
“I feel that I bring positivity, high energy, and humility to leadership. I realize that no matter how much I read and listen, or how many training sessions I participate in and lead, there is always so much to learn,” Chmiel explains.
A Princeton resident, Chmiel is committed to the community here. He knows this past year has been tumultuous for high school staff and students in many ways, and is committed to being approachable, communicating well and re-energizing everyone. Every Sunday in the new school year, upcoming events and PHS highlights will be shared with all PHS families via a phone, email and text blast. He is also planning Princeton Fridays, where everyone will wear their school spirit. Pep rallies and other assemblies hope to additionally bring them all together. Chmiel hopes this helps them develop as a whole but also looks to know everyone as individuals.
“A key thing though for me is visibility. This will also be practiced by the rest of the PHS Administrative Team,” informs Chmiel. “Students will see me in the halls. I get to learn students’ names and then I learn about their interests and hobbies. I will engage students in our Student Advisory Committee, which will be something new for Princeton High School.”
Students from all grades levels and background will be forming the Student Advisory Committee, meeting monthly to provide student perspective and insight on matters. Chmiel is also counting on his staff, including school counselors, the school psychologist and other administrators to ensure the social-emotional wellness of students is constantly in check.
At the end of the last school year Director of Guidance, Health and Wellness Dr. Kristina Donovan informed the district she was leaving and PPS Administration has just completed the process of hiring her replacement. Dana Karas has worked in schools as a teacher and counselor for years, including at Princeton Public Schools as a middle school French teacher and high school counselor. Princeton’s new Director of Student Counseling Services held a guidance supervisory role in both Lawrence Township Public Schools and Franklin Township Public Schools. With this new hire, his other administrators, staff, students and their families, Chmiel promises he is looking to work together.
“Taking the time to get to know people, how they feel, how they think, how they work, and what they are interested in, helps me to make more informed and personalized leadership decisions both on the micro and macro level. More importantly, our learning community members, including our parents/guardians and extended Princeton community, will know that I truly care about them,” Chmiel adds.
Chmiel will not be the only new principal in the district this year, with a vacancy now being filled at Riverside School.
On August 23rd, Ebony Lattimer will take over as Riverside principal. Mark Shelley and his family made the difficult decision in April to leave the area for Pittsburgh, after serving as the school’s lead administrator since 2018. Like the current turnover at PHS, Riverside has seen its fair share recently. After being led for 30 years by Bill Cirullo, who passed away in February 2016, it has since had three principals. When Cirullo became severely ill, the school was led for a year by Paul Chapin, its longtime music teacher. In summer 2016, Valerie Ulrich was named principal, who was replaced by Shelley in 2018 when she took on an administrative role in the district.
Throughout the summer a committee comprised of Riverside faculty and staff, people from the community and district administrators met and interviewed potential candidates. Earlier this month, Dr. Kelley interviewed the finalists and chose Ms. Lattimer due to “her passion for students, her leadership abilities and her knowledge of curriculum” which she says stood out from the rest. Lattimer comes to Princeton after more than four years as principal at The Titusville Academy, a private special education school for children, and eight years as an adjunct professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Dr. Kelley is looking forward to working with the new and existing school principals to build a strong district community with common goals. That combined with safe and efficient buildings, facilities and equipment should lead the PPS community to a strong future.
Lisa Jacknow 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. In recent years, she got immersed in the Princeton community by 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 Editor and head writer for Princeton Perspectives!