What is the PPS Referendum and Who are the Board Candidates?

The only question on the ballot for Princeton voters this November is whether or not to fund a $13 million bond referendum for Princeton Public Schools (PPS). The “Yes or No” question asks voters to approve what could average out to a $104 annual tax increase (based on Princeton’s average-priced home assessed at nearly $850,000).

With 49% of your tax bill currently going to Princeton Public Schools (with the allowable 2% growth this year plus more for healthcare totaling a 3.2% increase), one might ask what more is needed? PPS has put together a website to help to explain it but we will also break their proposal down for you here.


Simply put, the referendum aims to make security improvements, Wifi and other connectivity enhancements, HVAC upgrades and interior and exterior renovations and improvements at the schools. You can see the general financial breakdown of each as described in this graphic, taken from the referendum website, where amounts for each school are also posted. At the last public school board meeting on September 26th, PPS Business Administrator Matthew Bouldin explained that specific costs for each desired improvement are not made public to protect the bidding process. If approved…

  • All six PPS schools would have upgrades to internet service and energy-efficient climate controls and additionally receive security and camera upgrades and protective window film.
  • Updates to doors and locks at Princeton Middle and High Schools are also included as well as two new security vestibules at the high school.
  • All four elementary schools and the middle school would have minor playground upgrades with drainage improvements in those areas as well at Riverside, Littlebrook and Community Park.
  • The elementary schools would also receive fencing replacement.
  • Johnson Park and Princeton Middle School would have cell service boosters installed.
  • The middle school additionally would get pool area updates and ductwork insulation at the auditorium.
  • For Princeton High School, there are upgrades and repairs included to the kitchen and cafeteria, rooftop ductwork, at the EcoLab and resurfacing of the athletic and track areas.
(As seen on the sample Election Day ballot on MercerCounty.org)

If approved, the referendum would allow PPS to offset the overall cost with $5 million in debt service aid from the state. The Board of Education would be overseeing the use of the referendum funds in addition to the many other details and decisions they tend to, so your vote for the candidates will help decide who will be on that board.


Each year, three seats of the 10-member board are up for election. This year, five candidates are vying for them, two incumbents and three challengers.

You may have seen their campaign materials or heard them at a forum, but it can sometimes be hard to weigh their views against each other. We have created a simple comparison tool to help you know who the candidates are and where each of them stands. Their responses are posted in alphabetical order, not ballot order (as pictured below for reference). For each of our three important questions just click on the + next to each candidate’s name to compare their responses.

(As seen on the sample Election Day ballot on MercerCounty.org)

Princeton is lucky to always have strong candidates for the BOE. This year, two incumbents and three other residents are vying for 3 seats. Why should voters choose you for one of those seats?

Experience matters to improve our schools for kids and meet critical budget and space challenges. Since joining the board, I have spearheaded the board’s complex, long-term planning efforts. Together we have stabilized district finances and implemented two successful referendums that have brought our long-neglected facilities back into shape with new roofs, high-efficiency HVAC, and safety and security features. We’ve also built new classrooms and restrooms, and upgraded health and guidance suites. The board is now developing capacity solutions to address near-term enrollment growth, with no time to spare before at least 1100 units of planned housing are built. I’d like to see this work through and to ensure our excellent schools remain one of the crown jewels of this community.
I am running to restore public trust in the Board. I was born and raised in Princeton and went through the then-called Princeton Regional Schools (PRS). I was raised by my mom, a teacher at PRS for 30-years and father, once President of the BOE. I am also a certified teacher myself, having taught social studies in American schools worldwide, working at a school for teen moms in Trenton, and I write or implement original programs like reading recovery. I know the importance of "keeping an eye on the cash register." In the past, the BOE has spent money frivolously on grandiose building plans and consultants. Somebody should be driving money back into the classroom. A different, independent voice is needed on the board.
I stand out from the other candidates and current members of the BOE in two ways in particular. First, I have younger children, at Riverside and the middle school. With the elementary school planning underway, the district would be well served by a Board member who is tuned in to the needs and experiences of families with younger children. Second, my focus would be primarily on the quality of the education offered by the Princeton Public Schools, the single most important mission of the district. With my background in education, including a PhD and teaching experience in public school and at Princeton University, I am well positioned to offer meaningful oversight in this field. The district is aware of its academic problems, and has commissioned an outside review of its troubled math program following steeply declining scores and missed targets. Yet academic quality seems to have taken a backseat in recent years.
PPS system has many good attributes, but there are areas for improvement. While the BoE does not run the schools, they do set policy & provide oversight. I think the BoE should be more data-led in its decision making & more transparent in its deliberation process. Stronger oversight of execution (ie. KPI/key performance indicator measurement & accountability by the Superintendent). All decisions need to have an owner who can be held accountable for the outcome (subject supervisors, principals, assistant superintendent & ultimately the Superintendent). I will advocate for more transparency in data & communication to the community. For example, in the upcoming referendum, it is important to have more detail on the field/track renovation (ie, there is a difference between being in year 5 or year 12 of a 10-year useful life) or the proposed PHS cafeteria renovation (ie. Are we expanding capacity 50% or 150%? Are we future-proofing for added enrollment for the new housing that is coming or is this a stop-gap measure? Are we replacing end of useful life kitchen appliances or are we replacing tables/chairs?) My current job is all about analyzing data and identifying what is relevant or not, and I believe I can bring a fresh perspective on priorities, how to action on said priorities and listening and communicating with the community.
The Princeton Board of Education is regularly charged with making decisions in a wide variety of areas, including personnel, operations, facilities, policy making, education and many more. My background in local, state and federal government brings an unmatched record of experience in all those areas to the position. Princeton prides itself on its excellent schools and also its diversity. I am an advocate for excellence and equality and believe that the voters want a school system that offers a quality education to all students. Casting a ballot for me will ensure that those priorities will continue to stay front and center as we navigate a challenging environment.

The past year was quite tumultuous for Princeton Public Schools. What do you take away from it that would guide your leadership on the BOE for the next three years should you have that opportunity?

Good people may passionately disagree, depending on experience, information and trust. As parents and citizens elected to represent our neighbors (31,000 and counting), board members steward a school district with a $100+ million budget and 750+ employees, based on information that can’t always legally be shared with everyone. We need to improve the tone and content of communications, and to build trust by continuing to listen to all voices, including the quiet ones, while staying focused on the best interest of all students. We should model the hard work of democracy for our kids – showing each other grace, communicating with respect, and learning from our differing perspectives.
I have the "institutional wisdom" to understand the educational ecosystem's policy, process, and politics and the ability to analyze data and make informed decisions about a district's budget and programs. I want to know what I don't know, so I "harvest the intelligentsia." This town has so many people with expertise and experience, and I tap into that. Finally, mistakes happen, but this administration and its incompetence cause too many unforced errors that result in education distractions, leadership discontinuity, litigation, and loss of morale. I would lower the temperature and prioritize what is essential (students/teachers) and what battles to fight.
Dr. Kelley and Mr. Chmiel were both hired by the sitting members of the Board of Education and the public conflict between them was damaging and painful to our community. I would like to see more collaboration among district leaders, and to see the Board focus on building a strong administrative team and positive culture. We need our administrators to work together to address pandemic learning loss, improve curriculum and instruction, maintain good relationships with stakeholders, carry out the strategic plan, cope with the budget crunch resulting from the 2% cap, and deal proactively with demographic change and rising enrollments. There is a lot of work to do and collaboration rather than conflict is the way to get it done.
I would push to engage the community early & often on important issues facing PPS. I want the BoE to explain the options that have been looked at (pro/con), explain decision for course of action/vendor, identify KPI’s to measure success/failure, define a timeframe to measure success/failure and identify a back-up plan (if necessary). I would not be afraid to pivot & recommend a different course of action if a prior decision results in outcomes contrary to that which was intended.
EVERY year is tumultuous for our public schools! From pandemics, to staff changes, ensuring student safety and negotiating labor agreements, the Board is regularly confronted with challenges that are immediate and impactful. Service as a public official requires commitment to the purpose and parameters of the job, an ability to listen and willingness to take action that is always in the best interest of ALL students, our staff, the district and the community at large. A thick skin is also very helpful.

As a member of the BOE, there are many hats you must wear and many priorities you must have. But, if you were asked to lead one thing, what would your priority/project focus on and why?

Two of PPS’ most critical challenges involve space and budget, as we strive to maintain class-size expectations amid rising enrollments, while continuing to meet student needs despite a 2% year-to-year tax levy cap and inflation. If re-elected, I would continue leading long-term planning efforts, applying my professional background in finance, organizational management and law, as well as my proven track record: two successful referendums implemented, seasoned facilities and finance team built, collaborative capacity planning effort underway, only 1.9% effective tax increases, and $15 million support from Princeton University.
We need to use our existing facilities more efficiently. Educational capacity at Princeton High School (PHS) and John Witherspoon Middle School (JWMS) is based upon a 75 to 80 percent utilization factor. We must find a way to leave 20 to 25 percent of our classroom space. With class scheduling software and other efficiencies, we should increase utilization to 90 percent. I favor teachers over expensive new facilities. We need to take better care of the buildings that we have. I also prefer cost-effective and affordable solutions over enrollment growth, such as adding a classroom into existing schools such as Johnson Park (JP), Riverside (RS), or JWMS if necessary. JP and Riverside have beautiful campuses with room to add a wing with 6-8 classrooms cost-effectively for expansion.
My priority would be student achievement: improving the quality of curricula and the consistency of expert teaching in the Princeton Public Schools. This has been an area of neglect for the Board in recent years, and one in which the current Board lacks sufficient expertise.
I would want to focus on how we close the learning gap for the underperforming groups within PPS. It is important for those groups but will also help overall PPS. I believe my background (Hispanic, 1st generation American) gives me a unique insight into some of these challenges. I believe there are some initiatives that can be taken that can be high impact and low/no cost.
My priority has always been to achieve excellence and equity for ALL students in our public schools. Unfortunately, for decades we have been unable to reach that goal. Our test scores tell us that for certain groups of students, our efforts have not met with success. I know that as a community we are smart enough, resourceful enough and committed enough to address our shortcomings in that area. If we lead with intention, consistency and commitment to address the inequities in our school system, I believe that we can make progress toward ensuring that every student graduates with the skills and opportunity to succeed in life.


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To provide a little more background, we also compiled brief bios for each candidate here:

Beth Behrend
A PPS parent and corporate attorney, Beth has served as Board President, Long-Term Planning Chair, and on all other board committees. She serves as one of two invited NJ board-member representatives on the Executive Board of the Garden State Coalition of Schools. Beth previously advised Fortune 500 companies on finance and corporate matters, and served on many boards, including the Watershed Institute, the Riverside School PTO, the PTO Council and UUCP.

Adam Bierman
I was born and raised in Princeton, New Jersey where I went through the entire then-called Princeton Regional School System (PRS). Public service and education are in my family’s DNA. My mom was a teacher in the PRS for 30+ years. My dad served as school board president. I teach social studies in American schools worldwide, mainly in Latin America and China and currently work at a school for teen moms in Trenton, New Jersey. There, I teach social studies and help out with PE class. I also originate and implement programs such as Reading Recovery, verbal de-escalation, Business ESL, and a full-service sex Ed program working with Planned Parenthood.

Eleanor Hubbard
A historian by training, Eleanor Hubbard moved to Princeton to teach at Princeton University, and lives here with her husband and their three children, who all attend the Princeton Public Schools. Before earning her PhD from Harvard University, she taught public school in the South Bronx as a New York City Teaching Fellow. Her interest in children and education also led her to serve for eight years as a trustee of UNOW, the early childhood center. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, gardening, and singing in the choir Princeton Pro Musica.

Rene Obregon
I was born and raised in Clifton, NJ and have resided in Princeton for the last 14 years. My wife, Karolin Obregon, is a teacher at Cherry Hill Nursery School. We have 2 teenage boys who both went to Johnson Park, PMS and are now in PHS. I am a bilingual first generation American of Peruvian & Cuban parents. I graduated from Lehigh University and for the last 25 years I have worked in finance in NYC. I am currently the CEO of Numis Securities, Inc.

Michelle Tuck-Ponder
Michele Tuck-Ponder is a 32-year resident of Princeton. She has served two terms on the Princeton Board of Education and was elected to two terms on the Princeton Township Committee, including three years as the town’s Mayor. Michele was a Commissioner of the Princeton Housing Authority, a member of New Jersey’s Martin Luther King Commission and held positions in the United States Senate, U.S. House of Representatives and the Office of the Governor. She is currently the CEO of Destination Imagination, Inc., a global creative education program. A graduate of Northwestern University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Michele is married to Rhinold Ponder, Esq. and has two children: Jamaica (PHS 2017) and William, a junior at Princeton HS.

To vote for the Board of Education candidates and weigh in on the referendum, you must complete that section of the ballot. How, where and when to vote is detailed in this issue, in the article The General Election: Who’s Running? What’s New? What’s at Stake?

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