Education: Bachelor’s of science in chemical engineering, master’s of science in bioengineering, JD/MBA, master’s of science in biotechnology.
Why are you the right candidate for the school board? I am running as part of a slate of three candidates with Paul Johnson and Karen Lemon because we want to make a difference on the Princeton Board of Education. We believe that the three of us, working together, can make a difference on the board and to the schools. We formed a slate to seek a majority on the board to enact change. I was on the board for one term but decided not to run for a second term a year ago because of frustration with the lack of creativity and forward thinking in how the district manages its finances and addresses the achievement gap. Since deciding not to run again, there have been changes at the top of the district. As a result, I believe that we can use creativity and forward thinking to reduce the achievement gap, make the district more affordable and provide much needed transparency to the board. If I am elected with Paul and Karen, we can make a difference.
What are the top three challenges the board must urgently address? The slate I am part of with Paul Johnson and Karen Lemon has identified affordability, the achievement gap and transparency/trust as the three top challenges in the district. We need to address our budget to make this district affordable to its residents. Almost 50% of your property taxes go to the school district. When I was on the board, I identified numerous cost saving initiatives that would improve the finances without any negative impact on the students, their education, or the employees of the district. Not all cost saving will be simple or easy to implement. That is why we need a board and district administration with the creativity to examine and hopefully implement these cost savings. We need to address the persistent achievement gap in our district. For example, consider the report given to the BOE in October 2019 on standardized testing results. The report shows that this a great school district for your kids … if you are white, Asian, or of mixed race. But is it a great school district if your kids are Hispanic, African American, Special Ed or economically disadvantaged? It needs to be better because the gap is fairly consistent between 2015 and 2019. There were two graphs in that report that show a consistent gap over that period. That image has remained in my mind since that day and it continues to bother me. I grew up and went to high school in Clemson, South Carolina and expect that such a gap likely existed at my high school when graduated forty years ago. But it certainly shouldn’t exist in 2020 in Princeton, NJ. We need to instill a culture of transparency and trust. There are nine board members elected by the residents of Princeton. Each board member is your representative to the district. The residents have the right to know the position of each member on every issue. During the public session of board meetings, the public has a right to have its questions answered. We should never consider any policies that limit the ability of board members to speak honestly and openly to residents.
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 next superintendent should have experience relevant to the priorities of our district, appreciate creativity, and know how to run a district on a tight budget while maintaining high academic standards. As an example of relevant experience, the next superintendent should have already reduced the achievement gap in a previous district and therefore can walk in the door knowing what must be done here. The next superintendent should have experience in addressing tight budgets, including finding and implementing cost savings. To improve the board-superintendent relationship, the next superintendent should treat each board member equally. Each board member is an elected representative of Princeton; the superintendent should listen to and value each board member’s opinion. One step to achieving better governance is by changing the role of the board leadership to more of an administrative role rather than setting the direction of the board.
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. I support continuing the sending/receiving agreement with Cranbury. Financially, it makes sense with the financial contribution from Cranbury being a significant revenue source to our district. When I was on the board I used publicly available costs to analyze the financial impact of the relationship and was convinced it made sense. Even considering the costs of the ongoing expansion of the high school, the relationship made sense. When I was on the board I ensured that the referendum that was passed had the lower cost expansion of the high school. Based on the cost to add approximately 125 classroom seats I calculated that continuing the send/receive relationship was of benefit to Princeton taxpayers. I did not come to the same conclusion when I analyzed the larger, $50 million high school expansion. If such an expansion was the only option, and it would have been economically unfair to Princeton residents, I would have to vote against continuing the send/receive relationship. When I was on the board I reviewed the cases for ending send/receive relationships and concluded that both districts must agree to end the relationship. If it came to that, I believe the board would need to work with Cranbury to amicably end the relationship. However, I am confident that with creative thinking, we can use low cost solutions to expand our schools if the need arises. The expansion at the high school and middle school are examples of both. While there may be growth in the schools over time, it will not happen all at once. I believe we will have time to make plans.
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? Can there be a more controversial topic in Princeton? When my kids enrolled in PCS after being at the Princeton French School, we had no idea that some people held such animosity towards the charter school. Then, shortly after I was elected to the board in 2016, the expansion request was announced. It was not pleasant being on the board as “the charter school parent” during that period especially as I had run for the PPS board, not the PCS board. I can’t imagine a scenario where the district is given 400+ students from PCS without advanced warning and time to plan. However, if PCS was suddenly closed without warning and the students had to fit within four elementary schools and a middle school, there is no way, hypothetically or otherwise, to accommodate this many additional students. As such, I will address the more realistic scenario. Suppose PPS and PCS amicably and mutually decided to merge, and I don’t pretend to know the circumstances where that could happen. But if it did happen then I hope that the PCS facilities could be part of such a merger. In such a hypothetical, PCS could be a fifth grade/sixth grade school and PUMC could be a seventh grade/eighth grade school. This would alleviate the overcrowding at the elementary schools and middle school. To keep the operating budget from increasing too much with such a merger, we would need to keep the PCS staff and teachers, and avoid increasing the number of administrators beyond those already existing. This is the only scenario that I can imagine that would avoid a significant increase in property taxes.
Please provide your opinion on whether the school district is making strides or not when it comes to equity in education. I believe the district is making strides forward and needs to continue its efforts. But beyond that, the district needs to explore more ideas. We need more creativity in how we address equity and the achievement gap. In our slate, Paul, Karen and I have proposed getting more input from the teachers since they spend the most time with the students. The teachers know what the students need to achieve and the board should support the teachers in the efforts to help all students achieve.
How will you improve diversity in the school district administration and faculty? We need to improve our diversity in hiring teachers and administrators. I am fortunate to be running on a slate with Karen Lemon, who has many years as an executive at AT&T with experience in hiring diverse employees.
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? When I was on the board, I voted to include the concession stand and restroom facility in the referendum. I believed then and I believe now that we need a concession stand and restroom facility, especially the restrooms. It is the $530,000 that bothers me. There is a premium in the cost of building school facilities in New Jersey compared to a residence but this is beyond imagination. If it was $250,000 or maybe even $300,000, I would feel this is a reasonable investment.
Should the school district still try to buy Westminster Choir College? Why or why not? No, no and no. If we bought Westminster we would have buildings we can’t use, can’t afford to keep up and can’t afford to demolish/replace. At most, I could see accepting some of the land adjacent to Walnut and the PUMC fields. But I would want no part of that if it reduces the viability of Westminster. When I was new on the board the possible sale of Westminster was first announced. We had a vote on whether to have discussions with Westminster. There are a few yes votes I regret and that is one of them.
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. This question assumes there are suitable properties to buy in Princeton. I was on the board when we first considered expanding and recall how few large properties where available in Princeton. Most of those we considered are now unavailable. If we need to expand to serve more students, we need to use our existing land and buildings. Consider the expansion at PHS where we are adding a second floor to create 100 to 125 classroom seats and modified the old gym to have two floors. PUMC is adding new classroom space within existing walls. If we need to expand, we must apply some creative thinking to what is possible with our existing facilities. If the existing facilities are insufficient, then we can consider additions to the schools. I don’t see purchasing new land to build new schools.
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? I don’t agree with the board’s decision on the Apple computers. The board needs to recognize that we don’t have the money to purchase everything we want. If someone wants to give us over $2 million worth of Apple computers, wonderful, we should take them. But we need to reconsider how we put quality computers in the hands of those who need them. Students have been taking online classes using PCs and Apples. We know that online learning isn’t limited to Apple computers. We should have considered other alternatives.
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? When I was on the board, I voted against the original policy and explained that I was voting no of necessity: there was no way I could avoid violating such a policy. As elected board members we must be free to communicate directly with the superintendent, no one should filter our communication. Similarly, as elected board members we must be free to communicate directly with the public, no one should limit our communication, other than sharing of confidential information. In general, I question the wisdom of and need for a communications policy. I see the use of such a policy in the corporate environment where there is a CEO who leads the company. But this is a school district where the policy is aimed at elected officials. If the town council can operate without such a policy, perhaps the school board can as well?
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. I expect that a simple yes is not enough. But yes, if a student can take a placement test or is otherwise permitted by state law to advance to the next level, let the student do that. I expect that in the worthy attempt to reduce stress in our schools, the district is trying to protect students from over-anxious parents who want to push their child to take every AP class and attend classes at Princeton University. And there may be some parents like this. But there also may be students who genuinely enjoy a subject, spend their spare time learning it and would be bored in the “proper” class because they already learned it on their own. While it is a noble and caring effort on the part of the district to reduce stress, if a student is ready for the next level, the district should not stand in the way.
What will you do to prevent increases in Princeton property taxes? What are the alternatives you propose? I believe in the 2% cap and would do my utmost as a member of the board to keep that from being changed at a legislative level. But can we prevent property tax increases in Princeton? Probably not. But it is worth going through the exercise of attempting to do that and seeing what would need to be cut to achieve a 0% tax increase. Then we can decide if those cuts reflect our values and goals for the district. I believe we should strive to minimize the property tax increases. When I was on the board I spent two years as head of the finance committee. I focused on cost savings and we identified many possibilities. These included benefits: health insurance options, generic drugs, specialty pharma, and step therapy. Many of these benefits packages are some that I selected for myself where I work. We also questioned whether supervisors should teach a class or two, as is the case in other districts. The answer back to me was not that the supervisors are unqualified to teach or don’t want to teach, but which union would they be in? The PREA or PAA. With a bit more creativity at the higher levels, I believe we might be able to figure that one out. We looked at substitutes at the high school. If your AP science teacher is out, will your substitute be teaching the subject? Why not find a way to reduce the number of substitutes by combining the students into one area with a single substitute. PHS is experimenting with this for PE. Perhaps with time this can be expanded to other classes. We also looked at busing – can we regularly revisit our busing routes to ensure a higher level of ridership in those cases where students elect to stop taking the bus? No one appreciates half full buses. I was frustrated at the lack of interest in considering these cost savings initiatives with more seriousness. Imagine how I felt when we laid off teachers and support staff because of a budget deficit, and I knew that we had the ability to cut costs and keep those positions. With the slate of Paul Johnson and Karen Lemon, I believe we can form a majority and push the district to look with seriousness at these cost savings.
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. Perhaps my biggest problem with the choice that has been given to the teachers is whether or not it will be relevant next week, or the week after, as circumstances evolve? We need to ensure the safety of our students and our staff. With some of the teachers willing to teach in person and some of the students wanting to be taught in person, are we at the right balance to try some classes in person? I would start slowly with those teachers and students who want in-person learning and expand from there whenever possible. Some districts are starting in person but then quickly going all remote as soon as someone tests positive. We must recognize that what we try today might be changed next week and everyone needs to be flexible.
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? I support expanding PPS pre-k education, especially when the state is funding more of it. We should expand what we are already doing as we get more funding to do so.
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? In the 2019 budget we laid off teachers and support staff for struggling students. I was on the board at the time and that budget offended me because it was unnecessary. We had the ideas and ability to institute cost savings that could have avoided all or at least part of the layoffs. Unfortunately, there was little buy-in at the top to make this effort. That was part of my decision not to run again – the frustration of knowing you can stop an impending tragedy but not getting support to do so. As I explained above, if I get elected with Paul Johnson and Karen Lemon, we can require the district to more seriously consider cost savings.
How do you plan to advance the special education/general education inclusion goals in the face of the blend of in-person/virtual programming? We are all learning on the fly in how to learn, work, and live in a pandemic. This is the case whether we are a teacher, a student, a parent, a school board member, or an interim superintendent. I don’t want to second guess the decisions on how the district is handling the start of a new school year in a pandemic as I don’t believe that there is an absolute right answer yet. My hope is that the district will carefully and regularly analyze what is working and what isn’t. If I am on the board, I would ask questions of the interim superintendent to ensure that he is getting enough feedback to know the pulse of the PPS community on how our students in the face of in-person and online learning.
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? Based on my time on the board and watching it since I have been off the board, I want more transparency. At school board meetings, if you come to the podium with a question, you should get an answer, even if it is only, “We will look into that and come back to you.” The community needs to know it has been heard. The meetings might go later than I prefer but Princeton has plenty of good coffee shops to help with late-night meetings. The meetings also should not appear to the public to be a session of voting on items that have already been decided prior to the meeting. If debate is needed, I welcome that. Some votes are for basic operations and don’t need debate, but the big issues should be subject to more open debate. I would reduce the use of lawyers and consultants. As a taxpayer, I don’t want to pay for lawyers to intimidate board members. Board members do this as a service, are elected by the community, and must be free to represent the community. I also would pull back on hiring so many consultants. In my experience, the district and community has most of the expertise we need. Only when we can’t find the expertise inhouse or locally should we go looking for outside consultants, and I expect that would be a rare instance. With the slate of Paul Johnson and Karen Lemon, I believe we can provide a better education for all Princeton students. This district should be a leader for other districts to follow. We should show other districts how to reduce the achievement gap, increase diversity, and maintain affordability. With creative leadership this is possible.
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 were given the same deadline for completing them.