Princeton School Board Candidate Profile: Jean Durbin
Education: J.D. Temple University, M.S.W. University of Pennsylvania, B.A. English Franklin & Marshall College.
Why are you the right candidate for the school board? I offer a demonstrated record of volunteer service rooted in community building and the principles of equity, access and inclusion. My approach to problem solving is informed by my work as a social worker, policy analyst and lawyer, and I have deep experience as a fundraiser. Our challenges include hiring a new superintendent, ensuring equity and success for all of our students by working to close the achievement and opportunity gaps, fostering authentic dialogue in our schools and community around racial literacy, and addressing projected enrollment growth in our schools and its impact on our limited resources. I would bring all of my skills to bear to ensure that we improve where needed and to support continued excellence. Meeting the needs of our children in the face of projected enrollment growth will require thoughtful collaboration with a multitude of community stakeholders. We can mobilize as a district to plan and identify needs that will require additional funding—we’ve done so in the past. I’d like to help by bringing ideas and people together and fostering a collegial, collaborative approach to problem solving.
What are the top three challenges the board must urgently address? Hiring a new superintendent is critical, as are closing the achievement and opportunity gaps and planning for future growth. Planning for enrollment growth encompasses an array of issues from faculty hiring and retention that reflects the diversity within our district, to addressing aging facilities, to policy review, to advocacy at the state and local level to strengthen our schools, to partnership with community stakeholders to fund capital projects so that the district can work effectively within the 2% tax levy cap.
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? Ideally, the next superintendent will be an experienced leader with a demonstrated record of advancing the principles of equity, access and inclusion. They will have a clear understanding of the role of the board and the role of the administration, and they will work to ensure that clear boundaries are set. The most important board member functions include: Setting and maintaining policies that define the district’s values and expectations, Approving the Annual School Budget, Representing the community’s educational philosophy, Hiring and annual evaluation of the Superintendent, and Supporting and implementing the district’s Strategic Plan. Dr. Galasso is a terrific example of an experienced administrator. He is practical, capable and demonstrates clear thinking about how to prioritize and address issues related to running the district. By all accounts, he is an exemplary manager of the district. He comes from a teaching background and also has children who are teachers. I’d welcome an experienced administrator like Dr. Galasso as our next superintendent.
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. It’s important to start with the facts on this issue. The Cranbury District pays the maximum amount permitted by State law, and it pays its own transportation and special education costs. The Cranbury District also pays interest on debt service for capital projects that apply to PHS. The Sending Receiving Agreement (SRA) provides the second largest revenue stream for Princeton Public Schools. The loss of this revenue would not bring a concomitant decrease in costs. Additionally, our Cranbury families, an integral part of our district for 30+ years, are generous contributors to the PHS PTO, PEF and arts and athletics needs that arise each year. The SRA should, of course, be examined as we plan for the future to ensure it is mutually beneficial for both districts. There may be some possibilities to seek additional voluntary contributions from the Cranbury District. But I think the vitriol around the SRA makes those kinds of efforts that much harder and less likely to succeed.
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? Many if not most Princeton Charter School students do attend Princeton Public Schools at some point in their school careers. The children in our community are all our children, and regardless of how the State chooses to fund our schools, we must work together as a community to ensure our children are well educated and well loved. I am opposed to “we-they” thinking in our community. There are a number of areas where the schools could be working together, and we should focus on collaboration and community building.
Please provide your opinion on whether the school district is making strides or not when it comes to equity in education. Equity means every child—regardless of ability, disability, race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, income, citizenship, religion, or sexual orientation—has the tools they need to succeed and learn. I think of equity as equal access with equal outcomes. As a member of the Board, I would work to ensure equal outcomes for our children by: 1) hiring an experienced superintendent with strong management skills and a demonstrated record of advancing equity, access and inclusion; 2) continuing to hire excellent staff and teachers that reflect the diversity within our schools and are committed to culturally responsive teaching; 3) expanding Pre-K; 4) ensuring that every child can read at grade level by the end of third grade; 5) conducting comprehensive program and policy reviews to eliminate adverse effects on any group or class of individuals; 6) ensuring that we recognize and defeat past patterns of destructive behavior especially as they relate to discipline and the unfair labeling of children; 7) ensuring that our administrators and staff have the professional development and tools they need to support equity within each school; and 8) measuring equity outcomes of our initiatives so that we know where we are succeeding and where we are failing.
How will you improve diversity in the school district administration and faculty? I do think diversity in our administration and faculty should continue to be supported through the hiring process and through retention efforts. The demographics of our district show that we are much more diverse than most districts in our state, and our administration and faculty should reflect that. Twenty-two percent of our children speak English as a second language, and over fifty languages are represented as being spoken at home. I would support hiring faculty and administration that reflect the diversity of our community, and I’d also like to ensure that we are able to retain them after they are hired through training and leadership opportunities and professional development. Finally, we need to demonstrate to prospective job candidates that our school district is strongly committed to culturally responsive teaching with equitable outcomes.
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 attended relevant board meetings as a member of the public. The restroom facility with concession stand, running water and ice was approved by the voters as part of the $26.9M referendum. As required by law, a competitive bid process ensued and the lowest bid was accepted for a permanent structure. A large portion of the expense will go towards running sewer, electric and plumbing to the site, which are located a fair distance from the school building and nearest streets. The facilities director researched prefabricated masonry options, even though wood is not what the taxpayers approved. While moderately less expensive up front, wood would not be a good long-term investment due to lower levels of security, a shorter lifespan and higher maintenance costs. This field facility is long overdue, and will provide gender equity for our female athletes, running water and ice for all athletes and visitors, sanitary and hygienic facilities, decreased costs spent on port-a-potties, and a safe outdoor space to imagine and host events for the entire school community.
Should the school district still try to buy Westminster Choir College? Why or why not? I do not believe the Choir College is currently for sale. The district has assets at its disposal and likely does not need to add the Choir College to that list. I prefer to hear options and understand the thinking behind proposals before making decisions, but my inclination without knowing more is that such a purchase may not be necessary or warranted.
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. My thinking is that we should first look to use our existing properties and buildings. The Valley Road site is an asset and provides potentially interesting options to either lease the space to generate regular annual revenue for PPS or perhaps sell all or part of it to fund improvements to existing buildings and facilities within the district.
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 believe the 1:1 technology initiative was a giant leap towards fostering equity within our schools, where every child has a device to support learning. This was a cost neutral initiative since the funds were already in the budget. No new money was spent. All students in Pre-K to 1 will have iPads, grades 2-5 will have Chromebooks, and students in grades 6-12 will receive MacBooks, purchased at a greatly reduced price of $800 per device. The plan increases cost-efficiencies for the district by reducing the need for computer lab space and enabling the IT team to address licensing and support issues on devices owned and managed by the district. Our teachers will not be burdened with distractions of incompatible devices or software, permitting them to spend more time on instruction. Every child will use the same software and technology and the same learning platform. It also enhances opportunities for access to digital texts, which are quickly becoming the norm. This prescient initiative will provide staff efficiencies and long-term cost savings, sustainably move us away from paper and ensure that our children have the tools they need to succeed in a digital world.
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? I think the potential success or failure of the school’s current communication policy depends on how effectively the superintendent keeps the district and community informed on major decisions, and how readily available information is made to the district and community. I would like to see a weekly or twice-monthly newsletter, along the lines of the one the municipality sends out, go out to the district and community electronically.
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. As a parent in the district, my hope is that our children will be provided with opportunities to learn and grow. If a student can clearly show proficiency in a subject at one grade level through testing or through competency-based learning experiences, then they should receive credit for that course and move to the next level or take other courses that they are interested in. My hope is that learning and curiosity will be supported.
What will you do to prevent increases in Princeton property taxes? What are the alternatives you propose? I believe we should work within the 2% tax levy cap. I also would like to work on behalf of the district in building more private-public partnerships to raise funds for specific, planned projects. What if, for example, transportation or select facilities improvements for athletics could be funded through public-private sponsorships? Or if we had a grant to support the purchase of electric buses? Just like the Take a Seat campaign to fund the performing arts center, and the drive to fund our previous tech initiative, and our ongoing partnership with nonprofits to feed and care for our kids while equalizing the playing field, we can mobilize as a district to plan and identify needs that will require additional funding. I’d like to contribute to this effort using my development experience and by ensuring ideas for collaboration are brought to the table. My current thinking is to look at enhanced shared services, purchasing consortiums, and new sources of funding such as PILOTs shared with our town. I would also like to coordinate an effort towards changing the state funding formulas for our schools to rely less on property taxes and to make funding more equitable across our state.
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 understanding is that employment accommodations are driven by state and federal law. As a parent, I am grateful for everyone’s willingness to work together to figure out how best to educate our children during a pandemic. Once a decision was made by the Governor to reopen schools, the district had to respond. I understand the fear of operating during a pandemic and believe many of us feel it. And so, being on the outside looking in, all the safety precautions and measures taken by the district aside, if an employment accommodation may not be granted under the law to one of our teachers, I am glad that our district provided the option to take a leave of absence without penalty. My understanding is that the leave would be without pay because a substitute will need to be paid, but this is still a concession that employers do not have to make. There are no easy answers here. We will be feeling our way through this, and we have to be practical and empathetic while providing the best education possible for our children.
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? Princeton has already expanded free Pre-K twice and should expand further if state funding is available, or if we can raise funds to support it. I believe the expansion of Pre-K education will help us close the achievement and opportunity gaps. Evidence shows that early reading leads to lifelong learning, and if a child is not reading at grade level by third grade, they will face learning challenges at every turn. Any expansion plan would be put forth by our administration, and I would listen to the plan and learn as much as I can about what works in our Pre-K program and where improvements are needed. I wholeheartedly support this initiative as a critical step towards closing the achievement and opportunity gaps.
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 believe this refers to the budget adopted in April, 2019, when the district was facing a $3M deficit. My understanding is that district finances are now stable and that some of those positions were restored. Having said that, I would always work hard to preserve all staff positions that directly impact our children and would work hard to avoid any reductions in force.
How do you plan to advance the special education/general education inclusion goals in the face of the blend of in-person/virtual programming? I am not sure how to answer this question and think that remote learning makes inclusion almost impossible. I believe there is no doubt that our youngest and most vulnerable learners are suffering the most during this pandemic. As a parent, I endorse socially distanced outdoor gatherings and sports and clubs and extracurriculars for our children so that they may experience some sense of connection and normalcy. If learning pods are forming during remote learning, I would encourage parents to look for children to include who might not otherwise have a way to be included. We have to pull together to help each other until our schools are back to normal. And once we are back to normal, we’ll need to ensure the spirit of connectedness and caring continues.
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? In my opinion, this question is not written objectively since it suggests only failures and no achievements, and with only 200 words to answer, it is difficult to prepare a response. However, the board has engaged in priority-based budgeting and found significant cost savings, hired an experienced interim superintendent, negotiated three contracts, expanded free Pre-K, hired new staff that reflects the diversity of our community, implemented restorative justice positions and recommended and supported a shift in discipline within our schools, and conducted necessary reviews in the areas of equity and special education. These are all positive efforts in line with the district’s strategic plan. I am always happy to have a conversation about the challenges our schools and community are facing. It helps us all to continue to talk and listen to each other with open minds, empathy, and a willingness to truly connect. We are all one community.
Editor’s Note: Durbin took issue with our editing of her responses because we removed all the links she included in her answers, when links are not allowed. The removal of the links resulted in punctuation changes.
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 or included links. All candidates were given the questions at the same time and were given the same deadline for completing them.
Planet Princeton I hope you fact check these candidate statements. The Apple laptops were $879, not $800. I could buy the same one online with an Apple education discount for my son right now and get a free pair of earbuds to boot. West Windsor is allowing teachers who need to to work remotely so the district’s decision to force them to take unpaid leave has nothing to do with state law. Also if you are such a bridge builder why did you call a fellow Dem and his wife who opposed the $130 million bond referendum Trumpy Trumpsters, as I recall from a friend’s Facebook thread?
From the NJEA website: “If you are tenured or under contract, you may use sick days or be granted a leave. However, there exists no right to absence with pay beyond your usual sick leave. N.J.S.A. l8A:16-4. Possible areas for negotiation may include the providing of additional sick days in cases of forced exclusion, but such days are not required under the law.” N.J.S.A = New Jersey Statutes Annotated. If other districts have different arrangements than ours, maybe it’s due to their locally negotiated teacher contracts or other factors.
We need Board members who care about all kids. “Inclusion is almost impossible”?! Board members need to consider the needs of ALL kids!
The district actually paid $861.00 per computer according to the publicly available info.
I received an email blast from Jean even though we aren’t friends or connections and had to wonder if she got my email from the PCDO list, which would be totally improper. Tisk tisk.
Durbin is a buyer for Princeton University which seems like a total conflict of interest and a good reason she should not be on the school board. She has relationships with vendors who have done work for Princeton U and this has been a big problem in terms of wasteful spending already and constantly seeking the advice of Princeton U contractors (not going with lowest priced or best-in-class vendor) Our BOE members hire vendors with whom they have relationships whether or not they are the best value for the taxpayers… huge problem and huge conflicts of interest here .. these people manage huge amounts of money…She also is employed by Princeton U which does not pay is fair share to our schools… so she cannot really advocate on this issue…she cannot negotiate w the University while she is an employee of the University.
This is not clear to most taxpayers.. are we saying that the NJEA says the teachers have to go into buildings during cover bc they are essential workers… again given that so many parents opted for remote only learning many taxpayers do not understand why the district has come out so strongly against teacher accommodations… especially say for pregnant women or folks over 60…
The current communication policy seems ILLEGAL,no? and definitely unconstitutional … how is it still in place ? Again this is not clear to most taxpayers…
@Disturbing Unfortunately, variations of the list have been used in the past for mailings on behalf of BoE candidates. Some of the people involved in the local party have a close relationship with some of the candidates over the past decade. It is one of the ways that our democratic system in Princeton is not so democratic as this help on behalf of a few candidates does influence the elections.
Jean using the PCDO mailing list for her campaign, which is a misuse of the email addresses that were provided to the PCDO. As a lawyer, she should know better. Her mailings, inserts, lawn signs don’t contain the complete proper disclosures- again, as a lawyer, it should be easy for her to comply with the law. But the leaders of the Democrats in this town, Jean included, don’t believe the rules apply to them.
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