To the Editor:
It was my pleasure to attend the Feb. 3 meeting of the Princeton Board of Education to speak as a member of the public about the challenges facing the Princeton Public Schools. I served for six years and eight months on the board, including the previous 32 months as president. At the Feb. 3 meeting, I spent too much of my allotted five minutes sharing my perceptions of negotiations between the board and the union representing district teachers, leaving no time for my main message, which was to parents of students in the district. No one appreciates more than me the need to use the gavel to keep a public meeting moving along, so I hope to finish my remarks here.
To summarize my comments about negotiations: It seems to me that members of the Princeton Regional Education Association have propagated two false narratives. The first is that the board doesn’t respect teachers and consequently cannot understand the stress and uncertainty teachers feel about the current economic climate and these protracted negotiations. The second is that the board lacked leadership, foresight and ingenuity in negotiating in difficult times. Having worked with a majority of members of the current board and after reviewing public statements made by both sides, I find the first narrative absurd and the second simply inaccurate.
While I think it’s important to call attention to these false narratives, my real motivation in addressing the board on Feb. 3 was to speak to the parents who have attended board meetings for the past six or seven months, expressing concern about negotiations, particularly the parents of students in the district’s elementary schools. What gets lost as the board sits listening to the comments in the open forum is that its members are acting in the best interests of these parents, with a goal of ensuring that as their children grow, they will have the same — or even better — learning experiences as those currently offered to students at John Witherspoon Middle School and Princeton High School.
Board members are acutely aware of the forces working against the district’s culture of continuous improvement, including the 2 percent cap, flat or declining state aid, rising enrollments, increased healthcare costs and other expenses that outpace revenue. Last year’s board had to cut $1.6 million from the 2014-15 budget, which it was able to do without a significant impact to programs. While I’m not in the loop for the upcoming budget cycle, I assume this situation has not improved. In fact, I would guess that this year’s board is approaching a time when very difficult decisions need to be made about district programs, decisions that are going to affect the lives of students in much more significant ways than the amounts their teachers are required to contribute for health insurance.
Boards of education are elected to reflect the educational values of their communities and to communicate those values to the district administration. It’s not an easy job in any town, and it is particularly difficult in Princeton, where we value a wealth of opportunity for every student in our diverse community. That said, I urge parents to fully educate themselves about the fiscal crisis being dealt with by this board: think about what you would be willing to live without; share your values with board members; and learn just how relatively small a percentage of the district budget constitutes discretionary spending. Go to the board’s budget workshop, and follow that up by sharing your impressions of what you’ve learned at the budget hearing. It’s easy to go to board meetings and express support for teachers — just about everyone in this community is pro-teacher. What’s far more difficult is for members of this volunteer board of elected officials to take a hard look at the numbers and start weighing the merits of various programs and the impact that cutting or reducing programs will have on students. This is the true challenge Princeton faces and I wish the board and everyone in the school community the very best as they work to find solutions to this difficult situation.