Princeton School Board Candidate Profile: Adam Bierman

Adam Bierman school board candidate
Adam Bierman

Education: Bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in international affairs from Rutgers University. Social Studies certification from the College of New Jersey.

Why are you the right candidate for the school board? Education is in my family’s blood. I am a teacher at the State Division of Children and Families, working with at-risk students in Trenton. I grew up in Princeton and went through the entire Princeton Public School system, from kindergarten to high school. My mother was a teacher in the then Princeton Regional Schools for over 35 years, while my father was the president of the Princeton Board of Education during the tumultuous late 60s to early 70s. I believe that my background and experience can help prioritize spending on that which is most important for our students and community. It is my opinion that in the past too many members of the BOE have blindly supported the superintendent and his administration without asking all the tough questions or exploring every option. As a BOE member and an independent thinker, I promise to scrutinize closely all spending requests and leave no path undiscovered.

What are the top three challenges the board must urgently address? 1)Wasteful spending. We need to use our facilities more efficiently. I favor cost-effective and affordable solutions for projected enrollment growth such as adding classrooms to existing school sites. 2)Reprioritizing spending. The Princeton schools are responsible for 48 percent of your tax bill. They spend about $100 million a year. PPS has the 3rd highest spending per student of 97 school districts in our peer group. The BOE must learn to live within its means. 3)Transparency and Respect The attempts to prevent board members from having access to board information are unethical and undermine the trust voters have in the board. Board leadership has tried to restrict some board members from sending emails to administrators, and administrators have been instructed by board leadership to not respond to emails written by citizens. This is unacceptable. When information is hidden from board members, we are not being given the respect our elected positions deserve. The school district budget for 2020-21 adopted in May included an increase in the local tax levy of about $1.37 million. After the budget was adopted, board members learned about an estimated $1 million in cost savings for the school year. The BOE could have eliminated the tax increase. This information was not made available to all board members, which begs the question how can you make informed financial decisions when you are not given information? The governing body for the municipality did not increase taxes this year because of the pandemic.

Please name the top three qualities the next superintendent of schools should possess to lead the district. How would you evaluate the relationship between the board and the retired superintendent? From a governance perspective, how do you think you want to improve the board-superintendent relationship? The new superintendent should be knowledgeable about the best practices for maximizing student achievement and should be supportive of teachers. One must have a strong ability to both listen and communicate a clear vision, all while not letting politics intervene. Successful board/superintendent collaboration requires frequent, diplomatic communication both in and out of official settings. To ensure the timely fulfillment of strategic plans, school boards should conduct frequent, informal superintendent “check‐ups,” as well as extensive formal evaluations. The board should recognize these meetings as more than simply a time to critique the superintendent and should use the opportunity to self‐evaluate and review district performance data.

Do you support continuing the sending/receiving agreement with Cranbury? Why or why not? What are the criteria under which you would reevaluate the viability of that agreement? If the agreement proves to be economically unfair for the Princeton residents, would you let the potential legal procedure deter you from taking actions to terminate the send-receive relationship? Elaborate. No I don’t support it.Cranbury is a successful community that sends about 275 students to PHS under a Send/Receive Agreement. Cranbury announced a reduction in their municipal tax rate by over 20 percent and their school tax rate by 10 percent for the 2019-2020 fiscal year. Princeton taxpayers should not be subsidizing Cranbury students. Cranbury needs to pay its fair share. They can make additional, voluntary contributions to the schools directly or through the Princeton Educational Foundation. I will not support an expansion of PHS for out-of-district students like Cranbury, if we need the space for our own students. An SRA only makes sense if the receiving district has underutilized or empty classrooms. If the demographers think that enrollment growth will occur in the high school, we need to take steps now, such as a feasibility study to end the Cranbury SRA.

The charter school is sometimes pointed to as a significant financial burden for the school district. Do you agree with that statement? If yes, how do you think PPS can hypothetically accommodate the 400+ Princeton Charter School students without increasing the tax burden of Princeton taxpayers to fund the additional facilities and staff required to educate them? As of 2020, The Princeton Charter School helps out Princeton Public Schools with overcrowding. Current PPS occupancy trends show that for every 1 student who goes to PCS, 2 come to PPS. Imagine if all 430 came to PPS. Since PCS is non-union with lower health care costs, they are able to educate per pupil at approximately $17,000, as opposed if the same students came to PPS where the cost is approximately $22,000 per pupil.

Please provide your opinion on whether the school district is making strides or not when it comes to equity in education. I do not have an answer yet. I read the 25-page 2018 Equity Audit. What was not clear to me was what metrics they would use to gauge progress on the 28 Equity programs currently in PPS. My one thought is “fail fast,” find out what is not working, then have a metric dashboard that is specific, measurable and easy to read. Talking about closing the equity gap has been going on since my mother started teaching in the then Princeton Regional Schools in 1967. What will be needed is focus, a strong sense of continuity so you can incrementally build a successful culture, one that becomes systematic. So when new staff and students enter into the program, the expectations are in place and everyone understands them, and can easily plug themselves. A good superintendent will have contingency plans for when the leader of the system leaves. The new leader will have to balance the need for continuity and structural change.

How will you improve diversity in the school district administration and faculty? Visit and recruit at universities, review alternative certification programs. Interest local, talented professionals in coming back and teaching once they finish their studies, and try to offer more financial incentives to diverse candidates than other school districts.

Do you think the approx. $530,000 spent on the concession stand and restrooms at the high school stadium was a good investment or not? Why or why not? I see the spending of over half a million dollars as another example of not prioritizing operating funds and of wasteful spending. Given the district’s limited funds, time sensitivities, and politics overall, I feel spending such a large amount of the budget sends the wrong message to students, staff, and the community. The state’s uncertain economic situation could mean less funding in the future for public schools, and then with this type of uncontrolled spending by the board, all contributing factors can be very harmful to property values and cause our most vulnerable citizens to leave. There are, however, some ongoing expenses or programs that could have benefitted from these funds. Some of these include: – ionization filters, the complete overhaul of the faulty HVAC system, training long-term substitutes to on technical instruction, paying overtime for janitors going above and beyond to provide thorough sanitation of facilities. In regards to the HVAC system specifically, we still have 20 years of deferred maintenance owed, as well as ongoing expenses that might be pushing approximately $1 million. It is for these reasons and others that the board needs leadership that will strive to get our spending under control and start spending within our means.

Should the school district still try to buy Westminster Choir College? Why or why not? I am not in favor of purchasing any part of this 22-acre unit . The costs to acquire and renovate these properties are prohibitive and would place an enormous burden on our schools and community for decades to come.

Do you believe the school district should buy more property or just use its existing properties/sites if the district needs to expand its buildings to serve more students? What would you use new sites for or how would you use existing land/buildings? Please explain your thinking in detail. We need to use our existing facilities more efficiently. Educational capacity at Princeton High School and John Witherspoon Middle School is based upon a utilization factor of 75 to 80 percent. We cannot afford to leave 20 to 25 percent of our classroom space vacant. We should be able to increase utilization to 90 percent with class scheduling software and other efficiencies. I favor teachers over expensive new facilities. We need to take better care of the buildings that we have. I also favor cost-effective and affordable solutions for projected enrollment growth such as adding a classroom into existing schools such as Johnson Park or Riverside, or the middle school if necessary. Johnson Parl and Riverside have beautiful campuses with room to add a wing with 6-8 classrooms cost effectively, for expansion. I would not support a new facilities referendum before the old referendum debt is fully repaid on February 1, 2022 and February 1, 2023. I will only support a referendum that reflects our genuine needs. I will not support a facilities referendum that burdens the operating budget and could lead to operating tax increases or reduction in teaching staff. PPS owns two large parcels of land that total over 30 acres at Johnson Park. Also, the administrative building at Valley Road is underutilized and dilapidated. PPS had the potential to develop Valley Road, without taxpayer funds, through a private, public partnership. The two large parcels of land at Johnson Park also provide many possibilities for future use.

Do you agree with the school board’s decision to purchase Apple computers and tablets or should the board have considered other alternatives? Why or why not? The board should have considered other alternatives. By a 6-4 majority vote, the purchase of 3,500 computers, most of which were very expensive Apple MacBooks for almost $3 million, is just too high and quite unnecessary, as most students already have personal computers or laptops at home. I believe the school district should instead provide computers to economically disadvantaged families and students who need computers, rather than students who already have a computer. This was another extravagant want, not a need, at a time when the state’s uncertain economic situation could mean less funding in the future for our public schools.

Do you think the school board should keep or abolish the communications policy that was adopted in November? Why or why not? What are your thoughts on the policy? 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 him and keep him from expressing his opinions on sensitive topics, including the district’s sending and receiving relationship with Cranbury, school expansion plans, and Westminster Choir College. The board president and some other board members then unilaterally decided to spend school district funds (i.e. taxpayers money) on attorneys to proceed against Dart in an attempt to censor him. This was spending that should have been decided by a full board vote. The Board Member Communications Agreement as an Orwellian attempt to stifle oversight and critical analysis. 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? In an ideal world, this information should have been provided without a fight. We should be asking why the school district is trying to hide this information. It’s what the school board members should be doing, as they are the only ones who are in a position to know this information.

Some Princeton parents have had the experience that the school district resists giving students credit for material they have already mastered. Students have been forced to repeat subjects that they can already show proficiency in. When permitted by state law, do you believe that PPS should give students credit for existing knowledge and place them in the appropriate classes? Explain your answer.  Candidate did not answer this question.

What will you do to prevent increases in Princeton property taxes? What are the alternatives you propose? Princeton has a unique opportunity to become more affordable by controlling wasteful and unnecessary referendum spending by the school board. A previously issued $60 million bond will mature and be fully repaid with a final payment of $4.36 million in February of 2022. A smaller $11-million referendum bond will mature and be fully repaid with a final payment of $1.22 million in February of 2023. These bond maturities will save approximately $4.5 million in debt repayments that could lead to significantly lower property taxes if no new referendum bonds are issued, or if new referendum bonds are issued for smaller amounts, assuming interest rates remain low. I will do everything possible to lower taxes after these bonds are fully repaid, while maintaining academic excellence and equity in education.

Do you believe that teachers who are at a higher risk of COVID who have asked to work remotely should be allowed to do so or should have to choose between working in the school buildings or taking a year of unpaid leave? Please explain your answer.  My number one priority to open the schools in a hybrid model as students are suffering, particularly economically disadvantaged students and special needs children. COVID-19 testing and contact tracing are the keys to reopening safety and getting teachers back to teaching. With that said, these are unprecedented times, with no right answers, but hard choices. If we wait until we have scientific certainty to safely bring back in-school instruction, it may not happen for over a year. We should go with the hybrid model with protocols and scenarios for various contingencies, including the training of long-term substitute teachers in case some teachers take time off short or long term.

How would you propose to expand PPS pre-k education now that the governor has signed legislation to provide school districts with more pre-k funding? Expanding access for infants and toddlers; new state early learning and development standards; developing and keeping a highly qualified workforce; coordination and collaboration between early childhood providers and schools; and conduct adult education and parenting courses at local schools.

The recent administration presented a budget that cut support and teachers for struggling students, and the board approved it. Do you think this was the right decision given budget constraints or what would you do differently? I would have voted against the 2019-20 budget that reduced staff by 3%, including teachers and Academic Intervention Specialists coordinators, while raising taxes by the maximum allowed under the law. I believe we can and must do better. That budget represents a failure to prioritize spending on that which is most important to our students, families, and community. PPS has the 3rd highest spending per student of 97 school districts in our peer group, yet the BOE raised taxes and laid off the people doing the essential work. I believe that cost-saving projections should have been done before the 2020/21 budget was adopted, so the board could weigh the option of giving residents tax relief because of the economic hardship created by the pandemic. The governing body for the municipality did not increase taxes for the budget this year because of the pandemic. The BOE could have eliminated the tax increase with the million dollars in savings, due to remote learning. We need to drive more money into the classroom. The PPS budget is allocated for 60 percent for classroom spending and 40 percent for non-classroom spending for administration, support services, transportation, etc. We need to drive more money into the classroom. Reductions in staff should be in administration and support services, not teachers.

How do you plan to advance the special education/general education inclusion goals in the face of the blend of in-person/virtual programming? My number one priority in regards to COVID-19 is to open the schools in a hybrid model as students are suffering, particularly economically disadvantaged students and special needs children. COVID-19 testing and contact tracing are the keys to reopening safely and getting teachers back to teaching.

How has the current school board fallen short and how will you improve? How do you plan to restore trust and credibility of the board or do you think it is already trusted and credible? Stopping wasteful spending Using our existing facilities more efficiently. Promoting more transparency among board members.

The candidate questions were submitted by readers. We received questions from more than 100 residents. Many questions were similar and we chose a variation of the question or combined them. We eliminated questions that were obscure or unrelated to the schools, and questions that were actually statements and were not really questions.We did not edit answers unless they exceeded the word limit. All candidates were given the questions at the same time and the same deadline for completing them.