This is the first Q&A in a series on candidates for the Princeton Board of Education. We will also be covering candidate forums in the coming weeks. Information about the forums is posted on our community calendar. Q&As are being posted in the order in which the candidates responded.
Candidate: Beth Behrend
Education: Graduate of public schools in Hartland, Wisconsin; BA from University of Wisconsin-Madison; JD and LLM degrees from University of Michigan Law School.
Year you moved to Princeton: 2001
Favorite book you’ve read within the last year: “Thank you For Being Late” by Thomas Friedman
Schools your children attend: John Witherspoon Middle School, The Pennington School, Princeton High School
Why did you decide to run for school board:
I am passionate about our public schools and want to help make every dollar spent on them count for our kids. In 2017, the School Board will make decisions about expanding and transforming our school facilities, potentially involving tens of millions of dollars of spending, that will impact the education of Princeton children for decades to come. At the same time, big changes are being made in how our schools are run in an effort to improve wellness, balance and equity. All this is happening at a time when voters are very concerned about high property taxes, and fixed costs like healthcare continue to rise. These are exciting times for education in Princeton – with lots of moving parts, complex issues and high stakes because, in the end, it’s all about our kids. I’d like to bring my passion for our schools, together with my business and financial expertise, to the School Board and help our community navigate these challenges.
Please list the top three challenges the Princeton Public Schools must address and describe why for each challenge:
1. Rising enrollment, aging facilities and limited land for expansion must be addressed through long-term planning involving municipal and community leaders to develop a vision for public education in Princeton over the next thirty years. This planning effort should inform proposals for the renovation and/or construction of new school buildings and the corresponding public referendum to finance these plans.
Our school buildings are at or over capacity, limiting the ability to keep class sizes down, complicating scheduling at PHS (not enough science rooms), requiring costly stop-gap solutions (trailers), increasing student and teacher stress, and decreasing flexibility for innovative and differentiated teaching. Demographic studies show that enrollment will continue to rise over time, with additional development resulting from affordable housing mandates and Princeton University’s expansion very likely to add more students.
2. We need to build on the excellence of our public schools at a time when high Princeton property taxes are making it harder to live, raise a family and retire here.
Great public schools are expensive; we need to make sure every dollar spent on schools counts for our kids. To do this, we need to exercise fiscal responsibility and plan ahead (see first point above), collaborate as a community and make smart decisions today that will save us money in the longer term. We need to capture savings through energy audits, facility retrofits and green design and to audit the District administrative structure to align it with current needs.
3. Our community must be unified behind working to achieve the District mission of preparing students to lead lives of joy, purpose, creativity and compassion. This means welcoming all children, regardless of socio-economic background, color or ability, and providing equal educational opportunities and the support they need and deserve. This also means holding administrators accountable, on an annual basis, for improved wellness and balance metrics, using data from validated, evidence-based student surveys.
Everything we do in our schools should be about our children — not adults, not awards, not ratings and not college admissions statistics. We all share a common goal of wanting our kids to thrive and develop into happy, well-adjusted adults.
Why do you think you are qualified to serve on the board and what strengths do you have to address the problems you have listed above?
I’ve spent the past eleven years immersed in our schools – as an interested taxpayer, a parent of three, and then by volunteering for and leading the Riverside PTO, raising funds (over $50,000) for school gardens and working to have them incorporated into the District curriculum, and collaborating with District leaders on the PTO Council. In our community, I’ve served on the boards of the Watershed, the Princeton School Garden Cooperative, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation and helped found the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund. Over nearly two decades before that, as an attorney, I managed teams and advised companies on financings, debt offerings, restructuring, governance, employment and regulatory matters. I my youth, I was involved with government at the federal, state and local level and have a family background in real estate.
Those who have worked or served with me know that I will bring critical thinking, objective decision-making, financial understanding and empathy to help the Board tackle challenges. I am ready to listen, learn and work for our schools.
What do you see as the role of a school board member? Describe your responsibilities.
Under NJ law and the Code of Ethics for board members, a school board is responsible for the educational welfare of all of the children in the district. As elected officials, board members have a fiduciary duty to taxpayers to ensure that board funds, 83% of which come directly from local property taxes, are spent efficiently to secure the best possible education for Princeton’s children. Board members represent the community’s educational philosophy in making policy, strategic planning, approving a budget and hiring and evaluating the superintendent, who is responsible for day-to-day operations of the schools. Similar to a corporate board, a school board does not administer the “business” of the schools, but provides vision and makes sure that they are well run.
What are your concrete proposals for dealing with the school district’s overcrowding problems?
A long-term plan for the District (see response to Challenge 1 above) might include (i) an expansion to PHS to accommodate more science classrooms, areas for students to study and relax, and other flexible classroom/office space; (ii) the building of a 5/6 school at Valley Road to relieve pressure on JW and the elementary schools, which are all at or over capacity; and (iii) retrofits to existing facilities to improve energy efficiencies and permit more flexible use of space.
Should the Princeton Public Schools continue its receiving relationship with Cranbury? Why or why not. Explain.
Yes. Removing approximately 300 kids from PHS now would not solve current or future space problems at PHS, or have any impact on capacity issues at the middle and elementary schools. Cranbury pays almost $5 million in tuition annually to Princeton schools, or approximately 6% of total revenues (more than we receive from the state of NJ). At this point, these funds could not be made up from other sources. Like all significant sources of revenue, the Cranbury arrangement is an appropriate item for review as part of a long-term planning exercise; the sending/receiving school relationship is highly regulated and subject to a long-term contract. Above all, in any discussion of this relationship, we must remember and be sensitive to the fact that Cranbury children are valued and equal members of the PHS community; we are responsible for their care.
The town received voluntary payments in lieu of taxes from Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study. Should the Princeton Public Schools seek voluntary payments from non-profit institutions in the community? Why or why not?
Yes. To the extent that families associated with non-profit institutions send children to our public schools, and those institutions do not pay property taxes to support our schools, there should be some fair compensation, paid directly to the District. Our top-ranked schools help these institutions attract and retain talent; it is in their best interest to help us continue to offer a top-quality education to all Princeton children.
Should the Princeton Public Schools continue the current lawsuits against the Princeton Charter School? Explain why or why not.
Yes. The Board should do two things regarding the Princeton Charter School (“PCS”). First, initiate joint planning or a joint committee with the PCS Board to seek a common vision for the future of Princeton schools, while simultaneously working with PCS administrators to find ways to share costs, collaborate and reconnect our community. Second, as financial stewards with a duty to taxpayers, the Board is bound by that duty to continue the lawsuits in an effort to preserve funds to benefit all of the 3900+ kids in the District (including those at PCS). As for joint planning, we must be proactive, rather than reactive, and develop a shared vision of what our schools should be and how we get there. State law has put us at odds over one pot of funds. All Princeton parents want their children to thrive. PCS serves several hundred satisfied families; almost all our kids come back together at PHS. The District needs to hear why some families choose PCS and learn from that conversation. Together we can think creatively and proactively about ways to educate all of our kids, making best use of our limited funds, in ways that meet everyone’s needs. As for the requirements of fiscal stewardship, continuing the lawsuits makes sense, given the amount at stake – over $1.1 million dollars per year going forward indefinitely. Only about $15 million of the total District budget is available for “discretionary” spending on core programs like student services, curriculum development and instructional technologies. Fortunately, most of the legal expenses were incurred up front. Now it’s a matter of letting the courts decide.
The school district talks a lot about promoting diversity. How do you see the issue and what does the school district need to do to promote change?
Our schools must be welcoming to all – regardless of color, socio-economic background or ability. I support efforts to teach students, staff and families about racial literacy and the impact of implicit bias. We all need to learn to talk openly and honestly about race, without feeling unsafe. The District should sponsor speakers and workshops, working with local groups like Not In Our Town, helping our community move forward together. The books created by Princeton CHOOSE, with their personal stories about race, should be incorporated into K-12 curricula.
We should celebrate and view diversity as an asset, promoting policies to ensure that all children, regardless of difference, are seen as unique individuals and receive equal opportunities to learn and thrive in school and beyond. As a parent, I have witnessed how children at Riverside Elementary and John Witherspoon have welcomed classmates with autism and special needs, learning empathy and forging special friendships.
Our efforts towards inclusion are one of the things that make Princeton schools special. More improvement is needed, however, to support our diversity of learners. We focus disproportionately on our highest achievers at the expense of everyone else. We need to step back and remember to put our children – all of them – first. We adults feel great about our “award winning” schools, teams, performing organizations, programs, etc. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the big picture. We must ensure kids have healthy self-esteem and feel successful, regardless of whether they are taking “accelerated” classes, are in a top band, win an award for an extracurricular or have made it onto a sports team. Kids should be encouraged to take classes they are interested in and explore activities for fun through club sports and a broader variety of less-intense, fine arts options. We should work against the trend to professionalize our children. Education should be a lifelong journey, for all of our kids.
Anything else you would want to add?
Challenges like rising enrollment, limited expansion space and state funding politics can divide us or can be viewed as opportunities to think “outside-the-box” and work together toward creative, equitable and fiscally-responsible solutions. I would be honored to serve the Princeton community in tackling these challenges as a member of the School Board.