The email that triggered efforts to silence a Princeton school board member

Princeton Board of Education member Daniel Dart sent a letter to some members of the local community on Sept. 13 expressing his concerns about the school district’s proposal to hire a planner for $140,000. The email triggered a lengthy behind-the-scenes battle to control Dart and keep him from expressing his opinions on sensitive topics like the district’s sending and receiving relationship with Cranbury, school expansion plans, and Westminster Choir College. School officials have consulted with lawyers numerous times about Dart, but how much money has been spent on legal bills is unclear. District officials consulted with lawyers from two law firms on the issue, according to emails Planet Princeton received from a public records request. Only the legal bills from one firm were produced and provided to Planet Princeton as part of the records request. The district is reviewing legal bills from the second firm this week after Planet Princeton noted that bills from the second firm were not provided.

Dear Community Leader,

Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Board of Education held a Special Meeting on Tuesday, September 10 to discuss a $140,000 facilities planning proposal from Connecticut based Milone & Macbroom. A vote on the proposal is scheduled for the September 24 meeting. I have a number of concerns about spending our limited funds on another facilities plan:

-The recent construction-related problems at Riverside Elementary School that cost $27,000 to resolve, and required a delay in school opening, highlight the need to focus on implementing the recently approved $27 million referendum, rather than plan for a new facilities referendum.

-The existing $27 million referendum is adding significant new student capacity to our two largest schools. Student capacity will rise by 75-90 students at JW Middle School and 125-200 students at Princeton High School. There is no need to spend $140,000 on a new facilities plan at this time.

-School enrollment growth cannot be ascertained until the municipality releases the Court Ordered Affordable Housing (COAH) plan. We need to have updated enrollment projections before engaging a new facilities planner.

-Spending money on a facilities planner after reducing staff by 3% in the 2019-2020 budget sends the wrong message to our students, staff and families. I would prefer to spend the $140,000 restoring cuts in teachers, teacher aids, AIS coordinators or liaisons for our economically disadvantaged students.

-Capacity constraints at Littlebrook Elementary School can be addressed by redistricting Institutes for Advanced Study students to Johnson Park next year. This is a convenient solution as the Institutes is located in the Johnson Park school district and their students typically arrive for only two years.

I believe the Board of Education would be better served by answering the following questions before spending limited funds from the Operating Budget or Reserves on an expensive new facilities planning consultant:

1. Can we afford to educate 121 students of PPS staff that live outside our school district, at a $2.2 million annual loss? PPS staff pay either $2,000 or $2,700 per student per year in annual tuition, far below the budgetary cost per pupil of $20,638. PPS would free up space for 121 new Princeton students and eliminate a $2.2 million annual loss as these students graduate, if we stop accepting new, out of district, students.

2. Should we continue to accept new Cranbury students at Princeton High School if we need the classroom space for Princeton students? Classroom space at the high school, now occupied by 270 Cranbury students, could also be used as swing space for JW Middle School that is located across the street from PHS. The economics of the Princeton-Cranbury Send/Receive Agreement (SRA) are not favorable for Princeton taxpayers as Cranbury does not participate in the capital costs of a referendum.

3. Board president Beth Behrend stated she was concerned about capacity at the elementary schools. Can PPS explore a five to ten classroom addition to Johnson Park or Community Park to increase capacity by 125-250 students without having to spend $140,000 for a facilities planning consultant? I believe a PPS architect could investigate adding a wing to one of the elementary schools and create a rendering for less than $10,000.

4. Can PPS evaluate the Westminster Choir College (WCC) property using local expertise rather than a Connecticut based firm? Approximately five of the 23 acre WCC property is potentially affordable, as a nice to have (but not need to have) addition to our schools. PPS could hire a local appraiser for a few thousand dollars to value the acreage that is of most interest to the schools and engage free local experts to assist in a discussion with Rider University.

I would encourage you to attend the September 24th Board of Education meeting to express your views prior to the vote to hire Milone & Macbroom for a new facilities plan.

Thank you,

Daniel Dart
PPS Parent and Taxpayer

Mr. Dart is writing individually and not on behalf of the Princeton Board of Education.

Dart also sent out the following email and letter to the editor endorsing two candidates for the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education on Oct. 15. School board leaders flagged Dart’s letter to the editor as problematic. The letter was published in early November before the school board election. Other school board members also sent out emails and letters to the editor endorsing other school board candidates.

Dear Editor,

This is an important time for our public schools and for our community. Our public schools have an annual budget that exceeds $100 million. This spending represents 48% of our overall property tax bill. We must spend our money thoughtfully and wisely to maintain great schools and to keep Princeton affordable. 

I am pleased to support Debbie Bronfeld and Dafna Kendal for election to the Princeton Board of Education. Independent oversight of our schools is vital for students, families and the community at large. Board members must strike a delicate balance with decisions on curriculum, personnel, class size, facilities and affordability. 

I have been working collaboratively with BoE member Debbie Bronfeld since my term began in January, 2019. She cares deeply about our students, teachers and community. She works exceptionally hard on multiple committees. She asks probing questions and is focused on academic excellence, equity and fiscal sustainability.  Debbie is an independent thinker and votes no on wasteful spending. She wants to keep Princeton affordable and she prioritizes teachers over expensive new facilities.

I have also been privileged to know candidate and former Board member Dafna Kendal. Last year, in response to significant community concern over a proposed facilities referendum, Dafna skillfully pared down the size of the referendum by $103 million or 79%, to ensure that the resulting proposal addressed our schools’ most pressing needs. These critical improvements include new vestibules for safety and security, air conditioning, three new flexible classrooms at JW Middle School and a new addition with four classrooms and new athletic space at Princeton High School.

Dafna Kendal has also been instrumental in raising funds from institutions that benefit our students without burdening our taxpayers. She led successful efforts to raise $200,000 from an anonymous foundation and to earn a $500,000 payment from an organization with children of staff that attend our great schools.

Ms. Kendal also informed the Board that Cranbury was not paying all of its contractual obligations to reimburse PPS for Special Education costs after the Superintendent announced a 3% reduction in staff earlier this year. Her information was confirmed by a new analysis and Cranbury was billed an additional $166,000 for the 2018-2019 school year.

Our public schools have significant financial resources to fulfill our educational mission and to address the challenges ahead. The schools’ budgetary cost per pupil ranks as the 3rd highest of 97 school districts in our peer group (NJDOE Taxpayers’ Guide to Educational Spending). 

However, we need thoughtful and skilled leadership to prioritize spending on that which is most important to the educational outcomes we desire for all our children, and to keep our community affordable. I hope that you will support board candidates Debbie Bronfeld and Dafna Kendal for election on November 5.

Sincerely Yours,
Daniel J. Dart
PPS Parent

Although the writer is a Member of the Princeton Board of Education, he is writing in his private, individual capacity and not on behalf of the Board of Education. 

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20 Responses

  • I voted for Daniel Dart, and this is exactly why. As far as I’m concerned, he is on the right track with both of these emails. Near as I can tell, the BOE has steadfastly tried to hide all the data about students from outside the district, staff students included. (BTW, the Charter school was just as cagey about the same matter). The need to expand facilities is possible BECAUSE of non-Princeton-resident students, so as far as I’m concerned, we need to question facilities growth while we’re still somewhat in the dark about the cost of taking on outside students, because facilities growth is from LOCAL taxes and I believe that regulations do not allow tuition for outside students to rise due to facilities expansion. We educate all the Cranbury students, and I don’t know how many more. The only justification that I’ve seen for keeping these students is that not keeping them would result in loss of teacher salary. So, let’s see a real cost-benefit analysis of this matter, with REAL data, with REAL proposals for staffing and teacher changes, both keeping and not keeping outside students.

  • Just re Cranbury students, taking them at PHS is a net benefit to PPS and Princeton taxpayers of roughly $3m/year (the tuition received for Cranbury students minus the marginal cost of educating them). Even if PHS expansion costs more due to the Cranbury students, that extra cost is <$1m/year (debt service on the original 2018 expansion proposal). So the Cranbury SRA is still a clear benefit to Princeton taxpayers even after PHS expansion costs, perhaps counterintuitively.

    • Bob- you are just regurgitating what the BOE said in 2018. Was there ever an analysis done by an independent third party to validate what you are claiming? If taxpayers are going to be asked to pay more because the space is needed, isn’t it fair to explore if the expansion wouldn’t be needed if the Cranbury send receive was terminated?

      • The SRA question is moot for awhile and there are fresh issues for the new decade, but …
        Yes, there was an analysis by a group of 4 Princeton residents with strong financial and budgeting backgrounds, who acted as a volunteer citizen review board for the Cranbury SRA in Spring of 2018. Some began skeptical or opposed to the SRA, yet after a thorough analysis of the data all agreed that the SRA was good for Princeton taxpayers and remained so under any plausible changes to assumptions. Others (like me) came to the same realization after some time in Excel. – Bob (not regurgitating and not anonymous)

        • Fascinating. I would be interested in taking a look at this Excel analysis – is this publicly available anywhere? Has Dart seen this analysis?

        • That group of individuals was hardly independent. These people were hand picked to give the school board the answer they were looking for

        • @Bob Where can the public see the analysis that you mention? I’m glad to hear it was done and it should be available to the public.

          It’s good that you are able to post under your name, but anonymity is important to have as an option. Princeton is not so tolerant of dissenting opinions.

        • It just so happened that one of those 4 residents and the man behind that Excel spreadsheet was Brian McDonald. Of course, we shouldn’t presume that Brian’s analysis of the Cranbury agreement was biased and he was probably using the opportunity to audition for the board seat. But then Brian was quoted in today’s Town Topics saying the following:

          “Beth has worked tirelessly to make the Board a more collegial, collaborative, and effective governing body, and she has evidenced a great commitment to ensuring that every voice is heard,” said Board member Brian McDonald. “She has fundamentally changed our relationship with the community, she has fostered for more openness and transparency, and has actively worked to strengthen important relationships.”

          “Openness and transparency” after everything that’s happened over the past several months? But, hey, you choose what you want to believe, Bob.

  • Wow. I am pretty much speechless (which is a rare occurance for me). So our Princeton Public Schools are wasting tax dollars on lawyers because of these two emails? It is REALLY time to finish the housecleaning at the BOE that started with Mr. Dart’s election and continued with the re-election of Bronfeld and Kendal. Get out the brooms in 2020!

  • So these are the two emails that led to the Orwellian-style Board Member Communications Agreement. If certain board members accused Mr. Dart of breaching confidentiality, they should point out what information in these letters are confidential and will “needless harm individuals or the school” which is the definition of “confidential matters” according to NJ Statutes 18A:12-24.1 Code of Ethics for School Board Members. Was the community not entitled to know how many teachers were laid off or how much Cranbury might owe PPS under the send-receive agreement? Or those who were disturbed by these two emails simply prefer operating our schools in opacity and out of public oversight?

    It appears that the real “crime” of Mr. Dart’s emails was that his open support for Mrs. Bronfeld and Mrs. Kendall’s BoE candidacies threatened the tight grip of the school board by the political establishment. If not, why did the board try so hard to disguise the true intention of the communications agreement? Why were those who voted for the Communications Agreement not alarmed by the potential conflict of interest when the Agreement was brought up by the board’s policy sub-committee co-chaired by Mr. Grey Stankiewicz whose board candidacy Mr. Dart clearly didn’t support?

    Ultimately, exactly how much the board spent on legal fees in their attempt to silence one particular board member doesn’t matter. What really matters is the fact that some of our school district leadership thought it was perfectly fine to use taxpayers’ money to advance their own political interest. That is textbook abuse of power. Had it not for the public outcry and the excellent work of Planet Princeton, they might have got their way. Make you wonder whether this was the school board’s first offense.

  • Having read (most of) the correspondence you were supplied through the OPRA request, it would appear that this is in many respects a personal spat between two almost hilariously imperious school board leaders and the classic gadfly, Mr. Dart. The inability of the school board “leadership” to effectively manage Mr. Dart’s dissent–along with the subsequent panic that led them to resort to lawyers and threats, and ultimately to advance their ill-conceived “gag” policy–suggests that change is in order. If the school board bosses blanch at tough questions and seek to conceal information from those among their own ranks, why would they be expected to be forthright with their larger constituency, the community at large? This is a classic example of needlessly making a small problem into a large problem.

  • I am not surprised, but am still deeply depressed by this news. The BOE continues to behave like a private club, blindly supporting the ill-conceived and grandiose vision of Steve Cochrane, and stifling any critical analysis or oversight. We elected Daniel Dart to ask the hard questions and to challenge the political forces that have dominated the BOE for years, and so it isn’t surprising that the BOE is doing what it can to prevent him from speaking — even if it means spending taxpayer money to do so.

    Voters at the next election must remember this incident — and reward those responsible accordingly. But in the meantime, we must keep a careful watch on the actions (and spending) of this current board.

    Word on the street is that the current leaders of the BOE believes the only reason previous boards didn’t bring forward a bigger referendum was because they failed in their public relations effort. In other words, they didn’t put the right “spin” on their story to sway voters.

    Unfortunately, those “leaders” of the BOE have yet to get the memo that voters in this town want a board that makes evidence-based decisions, that conducts proper population studies before pushing for added spending, and that exhibits fiscal discipline to ensure our tax dollars are well spent. This incident does nothing to indicate that this BOE is any wiser than previous boards, or that they are going to take step to win back the trust of voters.

  • Oh, man. That Town Topics article referenced below is a nauseating farce. What a bunch of BS spin. The flowery canned quotes from McDonald and Behrend are over-the-top silly given what the emails reveal about efforts to suppress the “voice” of a dissenting school board member. Please.

  • i am no longer an interested party. I departed NJ and Princeton this summer. Good luck to all of you and the exorbitant taxes and nonsense regarding our kid’s education. I am so glad to be unshackled from the oppressive state of NJ.

  • I am not an expert. Can we as taxpayers recall BoE members. I can think a few that need to be recalled, especially in the leadership teams.

    • Board members can be recalled. The process requires a petition with the signatures of 25% of all registered voters (from the previous general election) — a very high bar.

  • What is maddening about this story is that it parallels what is going on in Washington! There, we have a President who intimidates civil service workers and fires anyone who disagrees with him. EPA scientists aren’t able to make the public aware of data that is at odds with the President’s spin.

    Here, we have a board member with unpopular views who published non-privileged information that the public has a right to know. As the data undermines the narrative put forward by the school board’s Pres, Vice-Pres, and Superintendent, they went after him with the legal resources of the district. Isn’t this similar to the witness intimidation that is part of the case against President Trump? Princeton should demand the same accountability of its public servants that we expect of the President.

    • As I have always said. The tolerant and pro-diversity crowd is as intolerant as the people they despise. They only want their small group of “vetted” friends, holding hands and singing cumbaya in a town that is unique, special, where nothing ever goes wrong.

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