Princeton School Board Candidate Profile: Michele Tuck-Ponder

This is the fifth Q&A in a series about the candidates for the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education. Six candidates are seeking three seats on the board. The last profile will run on Saturday.

Michele Tuck-Ponder

Name:  Michele Tuck-Ponder

Age: 59

Education: B.S. Journalism, Northwestern University; J.D. University of Pennsylvania Law School

Year you moved to Princeton: 1991

Favorite book you’ve read within the last year: “Strength in What Remains” by Tracy Kidder

Schools your children attend: Community Park School

Why did you decide to run for school board: Because at heart, I am a public servant and I think I can make significant contributions to make our schools better for all children.

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

1. Addressing educational disparities amongst our students.  Using my outreach and negotiating skills, I will seek to engage the entire community to work for the success of all students. I would also look toward other communities who have instituted creative and innovative methods to address this issue.

2. Holding the line on budget while addressing the needs to bring our facilities to the level that will support the advancement of achievement for all students.  As a former elected official, I have a particular interest in infrastructure and facilities.  I oversaw the feasibility study, design and financing for the Princeton Municipal Complex, as well as involvement in the financing and construction of the Princeton Public library building and am very interested in working on how we ensure that we have adequate and appropriate facilities to support our educational mission, without unduly further burdening taxpayers.

3. Lack of diversity amongst the faculty and senior district administrators. I would advocate that the district, with intention and commitment, recruit, train and retain people of color as teachers and senior level administrators.  This would not only benefit minority students, but majority students as 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 have extensive governance and leadership experience.  I have served as a mayor and official, non-profit executive (Women’s Fund, YWCA), a board member on youth serving organizations (NJ After 3, Girl Scouts) and I am a 26 year resident of Princeton who has navigated PPS from kindergarten through High School.  I am an attorney, community leader and advocate.  I am comfortable in a policy making role and extremely familiar with this community.  I have government budget experience, have worked my entire life for racial equality and am experienced in community building around developing a culture of high expectations for all children (Community Builder Fellow, US HUD, Camden, NJ).

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

A school board member is one of a body of policy makers charged with making decisions and establishing priorities through the lens of “What is best for all children?” The board hires and manages the school superintendent, approves curriculum, oversees the budget, negotiates labor contracts, represents the public and communicates to the public the actions of the board.  A board member has a fiduciary responsibility to the community.

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

I don’t have any, because there is insufficient data at this time to offer proposals.  I will say that PPS should only proceed by working closely with the municipality, the Planning Board and the Zoning Board to ensure that any future development is in line with the municipality’s Master Plan, and takes into account environmental impacts, traffic, infrastructure needs and other considerations.

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

Since this question keeps popping up, it would be prudent for the board to conduct a public review of the relationship to determine whether it is in the best interests of both parties to maintain the arrangement. I would also suggest that the relationship be thoroughly reviewed every 5-10 years as opposed to an open ended relationship.  Further, I believe that the State of New Jersey would weigh in on any decision to amend the receiving relationship with Cranbury.

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?

Absolutely.  Those institutions are citizens of the town like the rest of us, and benefit from a world class public school system.  When the town receives PILOT, those funds do not benefit the school district.  It would be totally appropriate for PPS to solicit funds from large wealthy non-profits that are in town.

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

It would be inadvisable to comment on pending litigation in which there is a chance I could be a party to the litigation in the foreseeable future.  Other than that, I would like to see the district and PCS work toward achieving savings through shared services such as Human Resources and IT.  I think that the ongoing animosity tears at the fabric of the town, and as leaders we need to make every effort to tamp down the adversarial rhetoric on both sides. Its not moving us toward resolving the problem. I think legislative advocacy is also a possible consideration to address some of the challenges presented under the current law governing Charter Schools in NJ.

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?

My son is in his 6th year as a student at Community Park School.  In those 6 years he has never had a black teacher or administrator in his school, and only had one Latina teacher for a half year in kindergarten.  For the 26 years I have lived in this town PPS has batted this topic around. There are GENERATIONS of African-Americans who can detail the discrimination they have experienced in PPS and I don’t doubt that Princeton’s Latino community has experienced the same. Its time to stop putting well-meaning band-aids on the problem. The town has to accept that there are structural deficiencies around racial equality, not only in the school district, but in the town as well. I don’t have an answer to how to address it, but I promise that if elected, it will be a priority issue for me. In the short term, the district should with intention and commitment, recruit, train and retain people of color as teachers and senior level administrators. This would not only benefit minority students, but majority students as well.

Anything else you would want to add?

I think I’ve said enough.

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