This is the second 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.
Name: James Fields
Education: Bachelor of Science (Central Michigan University, 2004);Master of Public Administration (Central Michigan University, 2006);Master of Divinity (Southern Seminary, 2010)
Year you moved to Princeton: January 2013
Favorite book you’ve read within the last year: Radical Reconciliation by Allan Aubrey Boesak & Curtiss Paul DeYoung
Schools your children attend: Johnson Park Elementary
Why did you decide to run for school board?
Last year, I was invited to attend a meeting between Steve Cochrane, Princeton Public School Superintendent, and African American teachers from PPS. During this meeting, I witnessed Steve Cochrane take an intentional step to unite our community. By his action, he showed a desire to take a stand against racial biases and thereby move our school district in the right direction. It was such an honor to listen, learn and voice my concerns as a Princeton parent. Unbeknownst to me, that experience ignited a passion in my heart to not only talk about the need for change but to be a part of the change that I desired to see. First and foremost, I’m running as a concerned parent. Second, I’m running as a candidate because leadership and representation matters to all children. Voting for me, if you desire, to cultivate a learning environment that exhorts the pursuit of excellence. I envision a school system where excellence prevails and success is defined as “being your best” rather than simply “being the best.” I will do this by building bridges within our school, creating intentional initiatives, and making Princeton Public School’s success sustainable.
Please list the top three challenges the Princeton Public Schools must address and describe why for each challenge:
1.The racial tension within our country is an ever-present reality for our children and within the coming days, weeks, months and years, it’s effects will not lessen but only deepen within this nation and in our community. Thus, I believe that one of the major challenges within Princeton Public Schools is addressing racial bias and inequality in our school system, among school administrators, teachers and even students, while also ensuring that we’re building bridges for racial unity as early as Elementary and Middle School. True reconciliation can only occur between two equal parties; so, we’re not simply calling our students to see each other as “equals” but ultimately, I desire to identify & eradicate the barriers that keep us from uniting.
2.Our children are feeling the pressure of being ‘successful’ earlier and earlier within life. The increasing and seemingly unsurmountable burdens of attending an Ivy League school and obtaining the ‘American Dream’ is a reality for most, if not all, of our students and its affect is being felt as early as Elementary school within our school district. While I don’t have a child in Middle or High School, as a Campus Minister, I minister to students who’ve graduated from academically rigorous institutions, like Princeton High School, who experience health and mental concerns. Thus, another major challenge within the Princeton Public Schools is to address academic related stress and overall student well-being of all children from the time they enter Kindergarten until they matriculate into college. According to the Princeton High School’s 2016 Stanford Survey of Adolescent School Experiences Report, 65% of PHS students strongly supported changing the way their teachers assign homework (e.g. how many projects students have at one time) while 73% of PHS students strongly supported creating more time for students to work on homework/projects in school. I believe that a school district is “only as good as its collective experience”. These would be high agenda items for me, personally. It is my desire for everyone one of our students, especially High School students, regardless of their socioeconomic status, to experience the same emotional & mental well-being of being within our district.
3.The achievement gap is a major challenge for the Princeton Public Schools. As we become “vocal” proponents of the diversity within our school district, we must create a culture that is inclusive and welcoming of all socioeconomic statuses. Within our district it’s clearly divided between those who ‘have financial resources’ and those who ‘do not have financial resources’; nevertheless, those who don’t have financial resources will often be qualified to receive some type of financial compensation from our schools. Yet, the families who usually pay the most are middle-class families who don’t make enough to receive financial assistance but they don’t make enough to comfortably pay out-of-pocket. Furthermore, another concern is allowing our student’s socioeconomic status to define their importance within our school district—for the good or the bad. While I do think it is important to be charitable towards those who do not have the same financial means as other students, I am against creating systems and/or terms that unjustly define a family according to their parent’s affluence or lack thereof. And thereby, further expand the dichotomy between those who have wealth and those who do not in our district.
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?
As a Pastor, I’ve been married for the past 11 years and as a racially mixed couple, my marriage exemplifies the unity that Princeton Public School is trying to achieve. Moreover, I have been a licensed minister for the past 16 years, and I have been a part of many different endeavors of reconciling efforts. While in Detroit, I helped my grandfather’s African American church merge with an all-white congregation; while in Louisville, I served as a Youth Pastor at a predominately black church which eventually merged with a predominately white congregation; while in Maryland, I served as an Associate Pastor & School Administrator of a K-12 Christian school where over 12 different languages were spoken within our school’s hallways. Even in my current position, as the Director of Undergraduate Ministry at Princeton University, one of our strategic objectives is to endorse “The beauty of multi-ethnic, Gospel-centered community”. As a ministry, we achieve this in various ways within our ministry but specifically on Thursday nights through a ministry called TruThursday that seeks to reveal and exemplify the Gospel while celebrating African, African American and Caribbean culture. Thus, I’ve been having conversations at the table of racial reconciliation for over 16 years and as a result, I have the experience as well as the expertise of Building Bridges for racial unity and I look forward to bringing my expertise as a newly elected School Board member.
As a former principal, I understand the need and necessity of developing strategic partnerships with the local community. Thus, I would encourage strategic partnerships and expanding mentorship opportunities with students at Princeton University, especially with our Elementary schools & John Witherspoon. Likewise, as a father, I would also like to encourage our school district to consider ways to encourage fathers to become more involvement within our schools as mentors and to simply be more present within the lives of their children. Ideally, I’d love to think of creative ways to encourage working fathers who work nearby the Princeton area to eat lunch with their children once a week or to stop by and play with their children during recess. Finally, I’d like to collaborate with other Elementary schools & encourage more interaction among our various schools, especially elementary. Moreover, I think collaboration and partnership will only augment our fiscal stewardship with programs such as: Field Trips, Field Day, etc.
As a parent, I will strive to lessen the achievement gap by lessening the burden of the socioeconomic gap felt by our students. I would love to implement a program similar here in Princeton to The Kalamazoo Promise which is a pledge by a group of anonymous donors to pay up to 100 percent of tuition at any of Michigan’s state colleges or universities for graduates of the public High School of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Essentially, to receive the minimum 65% benefit, students must have lived within the Kalamazoo School District, attended public high school there for four years, and graduated. To receive a full scholarship, students must have attended Kalamazoo public schools since kindergarten.
One of the greatest threats towards the Princeton Public School funding is the continuing expansion of the Princeton Charter School and the continual draining from our depleted revenue stream. However, what if we created a system to incentive on-going student enrollment within the Princeton Public System? What if every student who remained within Princeton Public School as early as Kindergarten would receive a full tuition scholarship for their active participation within our school district? What if we created a fund to help address the issue of student stress and emotional well-being head-on? Students are first stressed to know if they’ll be admitted into college or not. Then if they are admitted, their worries expand to know if they’ve received enough money to attend. What if every student was guaranteed some sort of financial scholarship due to their active participation within our Public-School district? Hopefully, stress would decrease and student well-being would drastically improve. Following is a sample from the Kalamazoo Promise:
Length of attendance Proportion of full tuition
What do you see as the role of a school board member? Describe your responsibilities.
The role of a school board member can be summarized within these responsibilities: 1)It is my role to ensure that the budget supports all our students’ needs. I’m a Christian, first and foremost. Consequently, I hold fast to a Biblical, Christ-centered worldview. As such, I believe that all people are created in the image of God and have intrinsic value before Him as their Creator. However, I do understand that as an elected official, it’s my duty to support all student needs. 2)It is my role to endorse the School Board’s objectives of excellence and equity. It’s my responsibility to support a philosophy of excellence that will affect the quality of decision making that’s being made within our district. 3)It is my role to exemplify the community’s educational philosophy and values by supporting the Superintendent’s Administration in the recruiting and hiring of professional staff. It is my responsibility as a School Board member to promote and encourage a philosophy of education that will become the basis for sound decisions regarding the hiring and recruiting of well-qualified, diverse professional staff in our district. 4)It is my role to encourage Steve Cochrane, Princeton’s Superintendent by providing meaningful evaluation of his administrative and educational policies. Thus, it is my responsibility to help evaluate and provide a much needed, different perspective for Steve Cochran and his administrative policies and/or procedures within the district.
What are your concrete proposals for dealing with the school district’s overcrowding problems?
My proposals for dealing with the school district’s overcrowding problems is simple: build a new Intermediate school for 5th & 6th graders to alleviate the growing numerical pressure among our local Elementary School as well as John Witherspoon Middle School. However, although my proposal is simple, with such a decision, I think we would need to incorporate as many voices as possible to make sure that we are making the best financial decision possible. Thus, I want to partner with community volunteers such as the Citizens Finance Advisory Committee (CFAC) to provide financial oversight. The CFAC is a voluntary group of Princeton financial consultants who provides financial advice to Princeton’s municipal counsel.
Should the Princeton Public Schools continue its receiving relationship with Cranbury? Why or why not. Explain.
Princeton Public School should continue its receiving relationship with Cranbury because if it does not continue this relationship, we would have to increase property taxes even more to reallocate the revenue lost from our receiving relationship. While Cranbury students are filling up seats that could be used by Princeton students, they are paying to be able to sit within those seats. Right now, our fiscal budget is tight and our relationship with Cranbury is one of the few resources that generates revenue for our school district without raising property taxes. While it is true that discontinuing our relationship with Cranbury would provide more seats within our High School classrooms, it would simultaneously deplete programs from our existing students, as well.
Should the Princeton Public Schools continue its receiving relationship with Cranbury? Why or why not. Explain.
Princeton Public School should continue its receiving relationship with Cranbury because if it does not continue this relationship, we would have to increase property taxes even more to reallocate the revenue lost from our receiving relationship. While Cranbury students are filling up seats that could be used by Princeton students, they are paying to be able to sit within those seats. Right now, our fiscal budget is tight and our relationship with Cranbury is one of the few resources that generates revenue for our school district without raising property taxes. While it is true that discontinuing our relationship with Cranbury would provide more seats within our High School classrooms, it would simultaneously deplete programs from our existing students,as well. 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? With our restrictive budget, I believe that Princeton Public Schools should seek to find revenue in whatever resource is most profitable for our school district—taxes or voluntary payments. Ideally, I think we need to use this type of revenue for a very specific purpose—to create, develop, and implement an incentive program, like the Kalamazoo Promise (see above).
Should the Princeton Public Schools continue the current lawsuits against the Princeton Charter School? Explain why or why not.
Simply put: no, we shouldn’t continue the current lawsuit against the Princeton Charter School because it is getting too expensive and the case since it is not addressing the real issue. The main issue with Princeton Charter School is two-fold:
1) Princeton residents have taxation without representation. In other words, money is being taken without having proper representation and/or oversight on Princeton Charter School’s Board of Education as they are elected apart from a public election. How can tax-payers’ money be taken away and then used towards an institution that does not allow those citizens to provide financial, educational and administrative oversight over that institution?
2) While the State of New Jersey has mandated that Princeton Charter School should be funded by local property tax dollars and therefore it is taken away from the school district per pupil. Thus, when a student is selected to attend the Charter School and thereby leaves one of the Princeton Public Schools, in theory, a certain amount of leaves with that child to the Charter School. However, what happens, if a student leaves the Charter School and re-enrolls into the Princeton Public School does the money return with that student or does it stay within the Charter School? So, the issue is money not being returned to Princeton Public School upon a student leaving the Charter School, period. Likewise, if a student leaves the Charter School and re-enrolls into Princeton Public Schools, does the money return? If not, why not? 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?
It is my belief that the issue of diversity and racial equality is one of the greatest, if not the greatest issue that is facing our school district, today—not budgetary limitations, not the Princeton Charter School, not the school district’s overcrowding problems. First, I believe that we’ll rightly promote diversity by creating space for diverse voices to be heard and electing diverse leaders to lead from strategic places of leadership. Second, another way to promote diversity is to create programs that support the educational advancements of teachers who already serve within our school district—this will not only support teachers but it would also be a great way to recruit high quality ethnical diverse teachers into our district as well. Lastly, we should identify and empower current High School students who have a passion for celebrating diversity within our school district or a passion for teaching to come back to teach within our school district upon graduation—specifically, I’d like to consider utilizing the newly formed PHS Alumni Association for this purpose or something similar.
Anything else you would want to add?
As a parent, I have been pleased with the quality of education that my children have received and by God’s grace, they’ll continue to receive. I’m concerned about the welfare as well as the direction of our public-school education. Specifically, I’m troubled by the racial bias and inequality that is experienced by our students of color specifically. I’m also concerned about the burden of the socioeconomic gap felt by all families within our District, especially middle-class families. As a former K-12 principal, I understand the significance of the role and various responsibilities of a school administrator. I understand that, if elected, I will be continuing the work of those educators who have gone before me. Hence, if elected, I’d be honored to build upon the precedence that has already been established by both past and current School Board members, staff, administrators, teachers and students, alike. Finally, as the only African American male candidate, I realize the distinct honor it would be to serve this community as a School Board member. Representation matter to all students regardless of their color. I desire our School Board to reflect the diversity of thought, perspective and expertise that is exemplified within our community.