Princeton School Board Candidate Profile: Michele Tuck-Ponder

Michele Tuck-Ponder

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

Why are you the right candidate for the school board? In one word, experience. As a 30-year resident of Princeton, I have served in a variety of roles, serving the community as an elected (Mayor and Township Committee) and appointed official (Commissioner, Princeton Housing Authority) and as a volunteer (Girl Scout Leader; Member, Princeton United Methodist Church). I have a record of service that demonstrates a commitment to service. As Board Vice Chair, Chair of the Equity Committee and the Labor Negotiations committee, and a member of the Policy and Personnel Committees, I have gained intimate knowledge of the strengths and challenges facing our schools. I am the parent of two children who have excelled in Princeton Public Schools. I want the same for all children. And most important, I know how to get the job done.

What are the top three challenges the board must urgently address? There are many challenges facing PPS and, for that matter, all schools in our county, state and nation today given COVID, the economic impact of COVID, and the ongoing issues of race and equity that are in focus more than ever before. That said, here are three of the top challenges facing our schools in Princeton: 1. Achieving Excellence AND equity for ALL students. Today there is a gap in achievement between white and Asian students and Black and Brown students. We need to make every decision through the lens of equity. We must also consider the needs of our Special Education, LGBTQ, low income and English Language Learners when making decisions, investments and cutting costs. For me, the top challenge is moving from talking about equity to making those tough calls to actually address equity in order to close the gap and ensure that ALL of our students have the skills they need for success in the 21st century. 2. Managing growth responsibly. Our schools are crowded and predicted to become even more congested in the near future. We must have adequate and appropriate facilities to support our educational mission without unduly burdening taxpayers. 3. Budget and Safety. Our budget MUST reflect our values as a community. We need a safe and effective educational environment for our children, teachers and staff. COVID-19 has presented challenges for this environment and resulting budget impacts. We need to make the necessary investments to ensure that ALL of our children have the resources they need for remote learning, that our teachers have the training and resources to provide excellent education whether in the classroom or via technology, and that when students, teachers and staff are present, they are safe. We also need to make sure that our budget decisions do not disproportionately impact our must vulnerable students.

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 job of a school board member is not to run the schools, but to ensure that the schools are well run. This is accomplished first by development and commitment to clearly articulated goals that are focused on providing support and opportunity for every student to succeed. Second, a school board must ensure that expectations are clear and that the Chief School Officer (the Superintendent) has the knowledge, skill and capacity to fulfill those goals. The Board must articulate expected outcomes and hold the Superintendent responsible for progress toward achieving the educational goals of the district. Administrators, Teachers and Support Staff are managed by the Superintendent, and the Board must establish and review outcomes to ensure that expectations are met.

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. At the Board of Education meeting on June 8, 2018, I abstained on the vote to approve the send/receive agreement with Cranbury for these reasons: 1. The Board received the contract the day before with no time to review; 2. The contract was not discussed in the context of the referendum (which was still being considered) and 3. The Board needed to make the best decision with all information available. I moved to table the motion, but my motion was not seconded. To view the full discussion, I suggest that readers view the Board of Education meeting video on YouTube. The discussion begins at 2:37:48 of that meeting. Now that the agreement has been approved and submitted to the State of New Jersey, it is unlikely that PPS would be successful in recinding the agreement and it would be prohibitively expensive to appeal.

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? Princeton Charter School does a great job of educating children. Engaging in a discussion as to whether or not it is a burden is not relevant, and is a disservice to those teachers and administrators who provide an alternative choice to parents in this town. Supporting the Charter School is a duty (not to mention required by State Law), and it serves no purpose to engage such a discussion. I prefer to focus my efforts on ensuring that ALL children have an equitable opportunity to excel in our schools, whether it is the Charter School or our wonderful public schools.

Please provide your opinion on whether the school district is making strides or not when it comes to equity in education. Princeton only fully integrated its schools in 1948, in response to a mandate from the State of New Jersey. Resistance to equality and equity is deeply ingrained in the culture of our town and our schools. As chair of the Board’s Committee on Equity, I think about this issue a lot. PPS has 28 Equity Initiatives, however, we still struggle to see progress in this area. The Equity Committee has spent the past year listening to students, teachers, special ed parents, staff, community members and administrators to learn the specific challenges experienced by those groups. In addition to drafting a plan/policy on Equity Impact Analysis to guide all decisions, the Equity Committee is also discussing what metrics and outcomes should be established to determine how we can plan for, and assess progress in that area. We have a long way to go.

How will you improve diversity in the school district administration and faculty? The last 9 administrators hired by PPS have been white people. On March 3, 2019, May 26, 2020 and June 23, 2020 I voted against appointments of individuals, not because they are white people, but because our hiring process was inconsistent, lacked transparency and was unfair to applicants of color. Its easy to talk about equity, but much more difficult to support it with a vote. As Board members, our only opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to improve diversity is to insist on a process that is intentional, open and fair to all. Six people need to vote to ensure that commitment is met. We are making progress, but the board still has work to do to meet that objective.

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 voted to approve the expenditure on the restroom facilities on our athletic fields. Equity is about providing supports to those who need them to promote equal opportunity. As you know, girls have different biological needs (to be indelicate, monthly menstrual cycles) to contend with. When they have to leave the athletic field to address those needs, they have to leave PE class and go into PHS to use appropriate facilities. A Porto-John is inadequate, because can’t girls fully address their needs, they can’t wash their hands and there is no tampon or sanitary napkin dispenser. Girls can lose as much as 20 minutes class time. This is not an issue for boys. Additionally, since athletics is a co-curricular activity, girls are unfairly disadvantaged, due to the lack of appropriate toileting facilities.

Should the school district still try to buy Westminster Choir College? Why or why not? The District has not discussed purchasing the parcel since 2018 when an offer was made and rejected. For purposes of this question however, the answer is: “It depends”. Is the parcel on the market? If so, will the parcel fill the needs of the school district now and in the future? Will the taxpayers support the considerable expense of acquiring the property? Will the ongoing litigation and legal entanglements require the expenditure of additional expenditures?

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. Again, it depends. Can the District accurately predict its future needs? What are the limitations on existing properties and sites? How many more students will the District need to serve and for how long? What is the projection for additional housing units to be constructed in the municipality? On April 17, 2018 and September 25, 2019 I voted against the $129M referendum because I did not think we had fully explored how to best utilize our existing facilities through improvement, expansion and rethinking the use of space. I believe that first and foremost we have to agree on our educational strategy and goals for the future – what are the 21st century skills that all of our children need to possess in order to achieve their dreams – whatever they may be ?

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? Yes. I supported this decision based on the need for equity. By purchasing technological devices for every student, we know that EVERY student has a common device on a shared platform so that EVERY student has equal access and opportunity to learn. Teachers require a platform that will allow instruction, assessment and monitoring of student performance. The pandemic has revealed not only significant inequities in access to technology amongst our students, but also the difficulty of managing learning when students are working on a plethora of different devices and software. Other alternatives were indeed considered and I am proud of this decision. The purchase repurposed the District’s existing IT budget and the purchase did not cost the taxpayers a penny more than budgeted.

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? It is a long-standing policy in our school district (and recommended as a Best Practice by the New Jersey School Boards Association) that the Board President and School Superintendent serve as spokespersons for the District. Board members have many opportunities to state their opinions, but there are reasonable conditions to that practice. All questions and concerns merit a respectful response. Board members must be scrupulously careful to avoid a violation of the Code of Ethics and restrict public remarks to restating publicly available information. Finally, the non-binding policy that was adopted in November 2019, expired at the end of 2019.

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 would be inclined to accept the recommendation of school administrators on this policy. Because I am a governance volunteer, and not an educator, I am not qualified to assess whether such a practice is educationally sound, or equitable or is in the best interests of our students or our schools.

What will you do to prevent increases in Princeton property taxes? What are the alternatives you propose? The District has to live within the 2% tax increase cap. This is difficult, particularly in light of unprecedented safety measures that have to be taken in light of the pandemic. Our budgeting process has been much improved, now that we have adopted priority based budgeting in the district. In 2020, the board passed a budget with a 1.75% increase to property owners–below the state-mandated cap. Alternatives to raising taxes include fundraising in our community, which has already resulted in a significant donation of almost $250,000. The Board has also initiated a shared services study with the municipality and lowered energy costs by installing LED lighting and taking additional conservation measures.

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. Covid presents all of us with difficult choices about how we can best address the needs of our students while protecting the safety of members of the school community. Our HR staff has had numerous conversations with teachers and staff about the district’s teaching program, its health and safety resources and protocols, and some people’s individual circumstances. They are in the process of continuing to follow up with those teachers and staff who had requested work from home as an accommodation, identifying additional measures we can take to add to their safety and their confidence. Those conversations have been productive, and they are ongoing. We do not expect to have a final count of those planning to take leave of absence for some time.

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? It has been proven time and time again, that quality Pre-K education is key to the success of all students. I support any effort the District makes to expand Pre-K education to every child who would benefit. In 2020, the District was successful in obtaining a grant that provided pre-k classes to low income children. I am hopeful that Princeton is again successful in obtaining additional funding to serve a greater number of students.

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? This question refers to the FY2020 operational budget. There were no staff cuts in the FY2021 budget adopted by the Board, and cuts instituted in the FY20 budget that negatively impacted vulnerable students were addressed by reassigning personnel and revamping positions to ensure that students received academic support. For the record, on May 7, 2019 I voted against the FY2020 budget because it disproportionately impacted our students with the greatest need for academic support.

How do you plan to advance the special education/general education inclusion goals in the face of the blend of in-person/virtual programming? It was a tough spring for all students, but for special education students and their families, the challenges were staggering. The Board and Superintendent are very aware of these challenges, and have focused on doing our best to fulfill the provisions of our student’s IEPs. It is the role of a board member to advocate and monitor these efforts, communicate the concerns of the community and ensure that our admistrators address these priorities of our most vulnerable students. It is the job of our educators and administrators with the requisite expertise to implement actions to achieve these priorities.

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? My experience is that the Princeton Board of Education is trusted and credible in the opinion of the majority of this community. Of course there is always room for improvement, and many people may disagree with some of our decisions. As a long-time volunteer public servant, I respect and understand that. The good news is that every 3 years, the public has the opportunity to let us know whether they think we are doing a good job. My colleagues and I work extremely hard to do our best under trying circumstances. It is an honor and privilege to serve my community, and I hope that I am re-elected in order to continue that work.

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.


  1. People don’t seem to get the concession stand/bathroom issue. The issue is not whether to have it or not. The issue is the cost of over half a million dollars for a stand and two bathrooms. I could build an entire house for $530,000, and a decent one at that. And the sewer line shouldn’t cost that much. Someone was boondoggled.

  2. Equity is her answer to every question… we get it, the ponder family feels Princeton is a racist town

  3. Didn’t Tuck-Ponder sue the school district over her daughter’s racist postings in the school yearbook prior to graduating from PHS? Isn’t this relevant? Can the candidate please address the outcome of this issue and her position. All her school board positions seem to be focused on race. Is that what we need on our school board. Educational outcomes seem to be a parent’s priority.

  4. Planet Princeton please for the love of God fact check these people. The former superintendent admitted as recently as January of this year at a board meeting and in the press that the district was still trying to buy Westminster Choir College.

  5. PONDER is not really effective. She seems to have some sort of personal agenda… She talks the talk but the results are not there.

  6. Yes this women sued the school district over her daughters racist yearbook photo, PASS

  7. Can someone please expand and give details on this event with the racist postings on yearbook and the school district? What happened to the suit? Should I be suing the district for the racist handling of my child’s photo this year as well (incidentally during the height of racial turmoil)?

  8. Her yearbook photo included a background picture of individuals being hung with the n word in view, it was said to be a family art piece.

  9. As I understand it the photo was of a group of students in her families home. A painting on the wall included a derogatory word. To be clear the photo was of the students. The High School objected after the yearbook was printed and complaints where made and suspended the student.

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