Princeton School Board Candidate Profile: Jessica Deutsch

This is the fourth Q&A in a series profiling candidates for the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education. Six candidates are seeking the three seats available in the November election. Terms are for three years. The school board election is non-partisan.

Jessica Deutsch. Photo by Pam McLean Photography.

Name:  Jessica Deutsch

Age: 48

Education:  Grew up Warren, NJ where I attended public schools and graduated from Watchung Hills Regional High School in 1987.  A.B., English and American Studies, Princeton University 1991; EdM, Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1993; MSW, Rutgers School of Social Work, 2007.

Year you moved to Princeton:  2005

Favorite book you’ve read within the last year:  When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi

Schools your children attend:  Children are in college.

Why did you decide to run for school board:

I decided to run for school board as an extension of the work and service that I’ve been involved with for the two decades. My candidacy is about caring deeply about children, believing in the district’s mission, and wanting to make a contribution to strengthen our community. As a educational advisor and as a parent, I became concerned about the “race to nowhere”— the constant, unquestioned, narrowly defined striving, and the lack of social connection that often goes with it. This takes a toll on the physical and emotional wellbeing of young people, depleting the kind of joy and purpose our district’s mission intends. I founded a group called Princeton Balance, to share information and encourage research and resource-sharing to shift the culture of education in a healthier, more authentic direction. Through those efforts, as well as board service to the 101 Fund, Hi Tops, and the Princeton Public Library, I have a broad sense of the complex important issues  and tensions facing our district and community. I believe  that serving on the school board is the best way for me to support our school leaders,teachers, and students. I think we can maintain and expand our definitions of excellence, but do so with greater balance in students’ lives. I will help the board to uphold the district’s mission, contributing to decisions that will shape our schools now and in the future.

Please list the top three challenges the Princeton Public Schools must address and describe why for each challenge:

1. Balancing the community’s expectations for the highest quality education with concerns about affordability and the tax burden. Our schools have an exemplary reputation for quality. In order to maintain that standard and expand its reach as our population continues to grow, the Board must be creative and rigorous in ensuring that every dollar is spent effectively and efficiently to meet the needs of all of our students. Our schools are assets that we have to preserve and protect, and at the same time we have to be mindful of financial realities for families and the community at large.

2. Closing the opportunity gap. Every child in this district deserves the opportunity to be prepared for a life of joy and purpose. We have been aware of the opportunity gap for a long time. We need the board to act with a sense of urgency to close the gap. We need to create effective outreach to families and community partners, support early literacy, develop  policies and programs that increase cultural responsivenesss hire teachers and administrators who reflect the diversity of our community, and communicate to students and parents a genuine concern for equity, respect, and high expectations.

3. Supporting a culture of wellness with a sense of urgency, so that students are thriving in, not just surviving their experience in the Princeton Public Schools. The Challenge Success survey conducted at PHS last year sounded an alarm bell about our students’ physical and emotional health and their engagement in learning. We absolutely have the will, the resources, and the creativity to be a leader in providing the policies and structure to support authentic, healthy, vigorous learning and the health and wellbeing of our students. PPS students should graduate from our district not just doing well, but being well.

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 am qualified to serve on the board because I have the knowledge, skills, passion, and patience to confront complex issues as a team player. I understand what’s at stake. I am constantly educating myself about best practices, research, and new ideas. I love to listen to parents’ and students’ stories about learning in classrooms, schools and on playing fields and stages. I will approach these (and other) challenges with the critical thinking and creativity that I have developed as an educational advisor, the empathy and respect for diversity that is inherent in my social work training, firsthand knowledge of our community, and deep relationships that I have nurtured as a parent and engaged leader in our town.

What do you see as the role of a school board member? Describe your responsibilities. 

The role of a school board member is to actively engage in the board’s corporate authority to: set and maintain district policies; approve the annual budget; represent the district’s mission; and hire and evaluate the Superintendent. The responsibilities are to: establish district goals based community aspirations and according to applicable standards and financial resources; to contribute to the district’s ongoing strategic planning; to develop sound policies for administration and governance; to communicate effectively with all constituencies; to be good stewards of district facilities and assets; to support effective recruitment, professional development and staff evaluation  strategies; to engage in board evaluation; to establish a process for good faith negotiation with employees, upholding educational goals and financial interests; and to abide by the board’s oath of office.

What are your concrete proposals for dealing with the school district’s overcrowding problems?

To deal with the district’s overcrowding problems, I would support the building of a school for fifth and sixth graders at Valley Road, freeing up additional space in the elementary and middle schools. I would also support carefully thought out, flexible, cost-effectively and creatively designed additional space at PHS. With all new facilities development, I would support the partnership of sustainability organizations who can help to realize savings from best practices and energy efficiencies.

Should the Princeton Public Schools continue its receiving relationship with Cranbury? Why or why not. Explain. 

I think the board needs to assess its relationships continuously. At present, I do not think it would be logical to alter the receiving relationship with Cranbury. Cranbury sends about 270 students to PHS, grades 9-12, approximately 70 students per grade. In exchange, PPS receives about $6 million of revenue. If we were to dissolve the relationship with Cranbury, we would realize a small cost savings by a reduction of a very small number of PHS staff. We would lose $6 million in irreplaceable revenues, every single year, and a group of students who are are an integral part of our PHS student body.

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?

I support the district seeking creative, impactful, and beneficial partnerships with local nonprofit organizations. I believe that there are many ways that our schools can draw upon and be enriched by the presence of the institutions that make our community unique and flowing with energy and expertise. I look forward to exploring the options for such partnerships as a board member.

Should the Princeton Public Schools continue the current lawsuits against the Princeton Charter School? Explain why or why not.

Yes. I opposed the expansion and support the legal actions that have been taken, as I believe these actions reflect the Board’s responsibility to serve the community’s best interest. The expenses have now been incurred and to shift gears would be short-sighted. I believe our energy should go into positive efforts to enhance our school district to meet every student’s needs. As an elected member, I would like the Board to explore building bridges with the Charter School in an effort to create a seamless educational experience for all of our children.

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 diversity is our strength. We must continue to evolve as a community that embraces, celebrates, and respects diversity of all kinds, and ensures that our schools instill the value of diversity in preparing students to be “knowledgeable, creative and compassionate citizens of a global society.” The recruitment, retainment, and development of administration and faculty who reflect the community’s diversity -including people of color those for whom English is a second language— must remain a critical priority. I support ongoing dialogue to help students develop self-awareness, understanding of implicit bias and racism, and appreciation of diversity as well as continuous review of the curriculum with respect to diversity in authorship, content, and forms. I would also support the partnership of the school district with community organizations to ensure that an education in PPS is enriched by the local resources that make our community unique, including  Princeton University, many nonprofit organizations, and the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood.

Anything else you would want to add? 

Service on the Princeton Board of Education is a step that I am taking after careful deliberation and many years of preparation. As my children are now “launched,” and my career has provided me with important insights about the potential of K-12 education to be foundational and transformational, I am honored to take the step of running for the board. The issues the board will face are complex, and the solutions will require patience and urgency, critical and creative thinking, and leadership and collaboration. I believe the board has an obligation and opportunity to influence the quality of life in our community and every student’s experience in our school district. It would be my great honor to represent the Princeton community as a member of the  Board of Education.