Meet the Princeton Board of Education candidate: Debbie Bronfeld

Deb Bronfeld

Education: University of Massachusetts BBA 1983, Babson College MBA 1990

What is your favorite book or a book you have read recently that you really liked?

I read Hamnet, A novel of the Plague, by Maggie O’Farrell over the summer. My husband had given it to me for my birthday.

Why are you the right candidate for the school board?

I am the right candidate because every decision I’ve ever made as a board member is for our students. I am running for re-election for a third term because I have the background and knowledge of our schools and know what it takes to support our students, staff, families, and community. I will continue to speak my mind in support of ALL students, and I will always support a budget that is balanced based on smart decisions. I know how important communication is internally and externally and will continue pushing the board to be proactive versus reactive. Continuity on the school board is very important due to the high turnover we’ve had in administration. As an incumbent, I have historical experience and know who the players are and what board members can and cannot do. In my 6 years of hands-on experience, I’ve served on Operations, Student Achievement, Personnel (chair), and Equity committees (co-chair). I bring my prior work experience (in accounting, manufacturing, and non-profit organizations) to support a budget so families can retire in Princeton, versus moving out of Princeton after their child graduates. As a parent of 2 PHS graduates (2015 & 2018) I use their experience in supporting curriculum, guidance, and schedules for students. I’ve learned to view my decisions through an equity lens because every PPS student deserves a free and equitable education. As a product of public education, I know that education is the equalizer for each of our students. I will continue to bring my passion for our district and my willingness to work hard for every student who walks into our schools. In January I will continue pushing for a better Tenure review process, accountability of staff, transparency, support services for all students’ needs and safe and secure facilities.

What are the top three challenges the board must urgently address?

The top challenge for me has always been the budget. I have learned over my 6 years, that without proper funding, change, success, equity, and academic excellence are hard to achieve. More than 75% of the district budget is salaries and benefits. Leaving 25% to fund transportation, day-to-day education of all students, new and updated programs and curriculum, and continued maintenance on our older facilities, to name a few. It is very challenging to budget for PPS as increased enrollment and inflation appear on the horizon. The board and administration have improved the budgeting process by starting earlier in the school year, implementing a zero-based budgeting process, and approving a 5-year contract with the teacher’s union. The second and more challenging issue is post-covid mental health and wellness of our students and staff. The return for the 2022-23 school year to in-person learning and participation in extracurricular activities with fewer constraints, is helping. However, the pandemic had a major impact on our children’s education, social development, and mental well-being. The board is very aware of this and has focused time, funding, and space to address the rise in mental health in our district. The board approved partnering with outside social service groups that include bilingual services for our students. This is not a one-and-done, and no one knows the long-term effects of covid on our student body. I will continue watching and asking, “how are our students” so we can ensure we are supporting their mental health and wellness needs. The third challenge I see is the hiring, training, and retaining of qualified diverse teachers, aids, and administrators for our district. Covid created many new challenges for our teachers and the board must also support our staff’s mental health. The current staffing shortage is affecting PPS, our entry-level salary has assisted PPS in recruiting. PPS must offer more Professional Development for best practices to teach and support our black, brown, ELL, and special ed students, so they feel seen and known and can reach their full potential academically, socially, and personally. With a diverse student body PPS needs PD that focuses on all cultures, races, religions, and sexualities. Staff must be held accountable for how they treat students and other staff members, and the tenure review process must be improved so evaluations are accurate and genuine.

What do you see as the three top strengths of the Princeton schools?

The academic excellence of our schools is a top strength. PPS’s students excel in our arts programs, advanced classes, and science research projects. Many students are self-motivated, and some have even prepared themselves to take AP exams that the district does not even teach. As a public school, our students are offered a vast array of classes, including early morning Mandarin classes for middle schoolers. The expansion of our science curriculum including research allows students to really focus on a project of their interest. The expansion of our PK program is a huge strength of the district. With state grants, the district was able to expand the PK program and offer free tuition for our low-income families. The district has partnered and set up PK classrooms at the YWCA and The Marcy T. Crimmins Learning Center at Community Village to support expansion closer to where our low-income families live. Focusing on our younger learners and setting them up to succeed at a young age is a top priority of making PPS more equitable for all. Another strength is the PPS Community. Our staff really came together during covid to support our students. There are so many caring staff that come to work every day and want the best for each of their students. Our staff goes out of their way to offer tutoring after school for students, showing up for our students and creating clubs and space for marginalized students to feel seen and heard. And this is not just in the classroom, even our bus drivers care and support our students. I remember at a retirement event one of the bus drivers said it was time for her to retire because the student she had driven for so many years was graduating. During storms, our bus drivers will stay until every child it dropped off at home. With so much happening in the world and at home, sometimes school becomes a safe space for students, and this is because of the wonderful teachers and aids that give 120% every day to them.

What are the top three weaknesses of the Princeton schools? 

A top weakness for me is the PPS culture that pushes for perfection versus supporting participation. An example is the annual PHS musical, which for many years was only open to students who took drama. I pushed for the PHS musical to be open to ALL students. PMS’s musical has always been open to the whole school. Students should be allowed to try new classes and activities without having to be perfect in them. Again looking for more joy in learning for our students. Another example is the academic stress students feel at all grades, which has been shared with the board many times, by students, staff, and families. At PHS the “APRace” (like the arms race) is students trying to out due their peers by taking as many accelerated classes as they can. Somehow the board needs to support celebrating the joy of learning in all grades, and not just competing to get the gold ring. Some of the stress comes from the home and some from students’ peers. I hope we can start to focus more on accelerated classes that also bring joy back to learning. Another weakness is the education and support for marginalized students at PPS. This includes but is not limited to black, brown, queer, and special education students. The board pushed for a special ed audit and many of the findings must be implemented sooner than later. This includes mandatory PD for general ed staff on how to read and implement students’ IEPs. PPS does a disservice in not creating enough opportunities for all students in general education, AP classes, and extracurriculars including sports. As equity co-chair, I have heard from many groups how frustrated students can feel, not being seen, not being known and not being cared for. PPS has implemented PD and some systems to address this, but not fast enough for some students to feel like PPS is their school too.

Please provide your opinion on whether the school district is making strides or not when it comes to equity in education.

Equity is a way of thinking and reviewing how we support our students and run our district, we are making strides, but equity is an ongoing process and PPS still has a lot of work to do. I am proud of several areas where equity has been front and center. The board has approved expanding our PK program several times. The focus is to prioritize spots for 3 & 4-year-olds from low-income homes. Many families in Princeton send their 3 & 4-year-olds to private PK programs. Not all families can do this, so expanding our PK program and giving our youngest students an opportunity to learn is equalizing the playing field for them. My goal is to offer the best education and experience for every student at PPS. When schedule changes for PMS and PHS are presented to the board, my first question is are these changes equitable for all our students, especially how will these changes support our special ed, ELL, and vocational learners. AP classes at PHS do not represent our student body. I have supported summer classes to assist marginalized students, so they are prepared to take AP classes when school starts. The equity report and special ed audit suggested many changes and opportunities that would create more equitable learning in our elementary schools. Including, a new reading program with multi-tier support for our young struggling readers, this would also assist PPS in referring fewer students for extra services. As equity committee co-chair we have invited many community and district groups to share how our students are doing and to hear what works and what does not. I have supported HR to hire diverse candidates in all teaching positions, so students can see themselves in their teachers. The board wrote “A Commitment to Antiracism, Equity & Inclusion” statement acknowledging the history and current conditions at PPS, this was needed to support any next steps in our work in equity education for the district. This is a first step towards working to change and make PPS an equitable place to all.

What are your solutions to addressing the issue of the growing student population in Princeton as hundreds of new housing units come online? What specific steps should the district take to accommodate an increase in the student body? 

The board created a Long-Range Planning Committee this year to prepare for rising enrollment. Another demographic study needs to be done and compare it to the last one. It is vital that we review the current capacity we have in each classroom at each school. This will give us a baseline of the number of students we can teach in our current facilities. The town’s future infrastructure and the effect on the schools must be included in all discussions of growth in town, and the district needs to be at the table when PILOTS (payments in lieu of taxes) are also discussed. At PHS, staff teach 5 periods a day, if enrollment increases in a subject needing a 6th period, the district has created “6th period teaching” the district can have a teacher teach a 6th period and be paid $10,000 that year for that extra class. If the demand decreases the following year, the teacher will return to teaching 5 classes and not receive the extra $10,000. This process has been effective in managing small swings at PHS in the arts, math and languages. The 2018 referendum add classrooms at both PMS and PHS. New flexible furniture has increased the usage and functionality of classrooms, making them more adaptable for more students and for group discussions. Understanding our current space and the expected increased enrollment is key to moving forward. Another option would be to sell Valley Road in the open market and use those funds to build on existing land owned by the district near JP. The DLI program at CP has changed the fact, that every student does not always attend the school closest to their home. We might need to do a review on busing and the location of new housing construction to even out the distribution of students at our four elementary schools.

How will you improve diversity in the school district administration and faculty?

Improving staff diversity is a top priority of the board and has been shared with district leadership. I’ve heard that Princeton is not a welcoming place for diverse staff, if we want to retain a diverse staff then the board and administration need to address this, because this is also a reflection on how we want our students to treat each other. The district can hire Black, Brown, Asian and LGBTQIA+ staff, however if our staff does not feel welcome and supported and want to work in Princeton, then as a board member, I have failed. We want our students to see themselves in their principals, supervisors, teachers and aids in school. To hire diverse candidates Human Resources has visited historically black teaching colleges, to begin recruiting black faculty and is a founding member of CJ Pride (Central to Jersey Program for the Recruitment of Diverse Educators) which brings together diverse teacher candidates with members of schools to match to job openings. And as a member of the superintendent selection committee, we clearly stated with our search firm, that we wanted a national search for diverse candidates to interview.

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 June 2018 board meeting I voted against the 10-year (2020-2030) send/receive agreement with Cranbury. Enrollment at PHS was increasing and I suggest a 5-year agreement so PPS could analyze its enrollment and facilities over the next few years. The state calculates what Cranbury pays PPS. My main problem with the funding calculation is a referendum is approved, per the state model, Cranbury is only responsible to pay a portion of the interest on the loan. Princeton residents are on the hook for the loan and interest. Of course, Cranbury is not responsible for referendums for our PK-8 schools. Since I have been on the board, both referendums completed work at PHS. The funding model should be changed so Cranbury pays its fair share of any PHS referendums. To end a send/receive agreement a feasibility study must be done. The state mentioned combining districts that are not K-12, to reduce taxes. The state should also review send/receive agreements to determine if they are still cost-effective for all taxpayers. Since the state calculates how much a sending district pays, the state should also start reviewing if there is a bigger tax burden put on the receiving district residents then can be handled. The issue of the Cranbury agreement will come up when PHS is overcrowded again. all the new housing construction in town, will happen sooner than later.

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?

Currently, the communication between the Charter school and PPS is working well. PPS doesn’t have the infrastructure to educate the 400+ students at Charter. The state calculates the amount PPS sends to charter each year; this is an annual expense in our yearly budget. The two districts share transportation, coordinate by PPS staff. Charter is part of the Princeton community education, and the boards have good working relationships. We view PHS as having 3 feeder schools, PMS, Cranbury and Charter, the band program auditions students at all three schools. Charter students not only live in Princeton, but their families pay Princeton taxes; we must continue to work together for all our students. Charter school parents vote for all PPS referendums, and Charter parents pay taxes on any PPS referendums that is approved. The Charter school PTO hosts a public-school board forum which is a great opportunity for both sides to meet and hear what is important for our students. The Charter school is not going anywhere, they serve a different need that some Princeton parents are looking for in the education of their children. I’m glad the schools, parents and boards are working together, mostly for the students, but also for the community.

Should the school district still try to buy Westminster Choir College? Why or why not?

No. The current litigation pending with WCC states its mission is to be a choir college. This is not the business the district is in, so purchasing all of WCC is not something I will pursue at all as a board member. I would consider purchasing a portion of WCC’s Franklin Ave. parking lot, this would be perfect for additional PHS and PMS staff and student parking. At one point I was told the land between Franklin Ave. and Walnut Lane had been categorized as wetlands, if this spot is no longer a wetland, it would be an ideal spot to build another sports field for PMS and PHS. Neither of these purchases would affect WCC from filling its mission to be a choir college.

What will you do to prevent increases in Princeton property taxes? What specific alternatives do you propose?

The current budgeting process of starting earlier, using zero-based budgeting and being more transparent has enabled the board and administrators to review in-depth current and future spending. Versus when the board was put in a position to approve a budget based on laying off teachers and aids versus raising taxes above the 2% cap allowed by the state. Approval of a 5-year contract with the teacher’s union, is a huge plus for the budget process by knowing the largest line-item expense. The board must meet with the mayor and council to fully understand how new housing construction will affect our schools. The district cannot be expected to take the full burden of increasing enrollment due to new housing construction without receiving a portion of the PIOLTS (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) to support these increases. Prior to covid, the board created an Ad-hoc alternate funding committee. This committee met with local institutions, to ask for payment for their faculties’ students that attend PPS, live on property that is not taxed. The district implemented a PPS alumni database and plans to work with PEF (Princeton Educational Foundation) to solicit our alumni for funding for PPS projects. The district is partnering with Sustainable Princeton, to focus on cost and energy savings, installing more efficient light bulbs is one example. Having salaries and benefits be more then 75% of the budget, we must think outside of the box for ways to cut expenses and raise new revenue sources to help our taxpayers.