School board issues statement regarding status of Princeton High School principal, will allow public comment for first hour of next meeting

The Princeton Board of Education issued a statement on Sunday afternoon in response to inquiries by some parents and students about the employment status of Frank Chmiel, the principal at Princeton High School, and reactions to an email that went out on Friday evening.

“We understand that the lack of information in Friday’s communication was frustrating, but we are unfortunately limited in what we can say by New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10, and the privacy rights held by public employees,” reads the statement.

“We know that changes in leadership during the school year are difficult, but please know that whenever these occur, the board and the administration always engage in a lengthy, deliberative process, consider the impact of those changes, and discuss those with all affected employees (as well as their legal representatives),” reads the statement. “The board unanimously supported and unanimously supports, the superintendent and the difficult decisions that needed to be made. Absent a public employee providing the board with a written waiver of his or her privacy rights, the board cannot say more.”

The school board will hold its next public meeting on Tuesday at 6 p.m. via Zoom. The purpose of the meeting, which was scheduled several weeks ago, is to discuss demographics and future planning. The first hour of the meeting from 6 to 7 p.m. will be set aside for public comment. After the planning discussion, public comment will resume again.

“We are thankful to Frank Chmiel for his service at Princeton High School and his strong connection with students, which was especially important as the students returned from the isolation of Covid,” reads the statement. “We wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”

An email was sent out by Superintendent Carol Kelley on Friday evening after a reporter from Planet Princeton made inquiries about Chmiel’s employment status. Supporters of Chmiel had contacted Planet Princeton to say that Chmiel received a letter from district officials by courier and had been locked out of his school accounts. The email to parents, almost simultaneously released to Planet Princeton, was short on details due to state laws regarding personal matters. The statement, signed by the superintendent and the school board, did not mention Chmiel by name. The statement said two vice principals at the high school would temporarily run the school.

In response to the email, some students created a petition calling for the board not to fire Chmiel. As of Sunday evening, the petition had more than 2,200 signatures. (Editor’s note: Some of the signatures are not from Princeton students, parents, and residents.)

A demonstration at the high school is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. on Monday, March 20, which is an early dismissal day at the high school. Parents supporting Chmiel have created a private Facebook group, and a website “What’s happening and our options.”

Administrators in Princeton have their own union. That union provides administrators in the district with lawyers at no cost. But parents in the district have created a GoFundMe page to raise money for lawyers for Chmiel.

The vice principals who will be running the school temporarily, Rashone Johnson and Cecilia Birge, sent an email to parents on Sunday. Both vice principals have worked in the district for many years.

“We understand that the sudden change in leadership may have caught you off guard. Please know that we intend to actively engage with our students, listen to them, and support them,” reads the email. “We often say our Tower is magical.  Over the years, we have witnessed its magnificence, determination, and unwavering spirit. We have no doubt that this magic will continue. Our student’s achievements thus far are a testament to our shared dedication to achieving educational excellence, and we fully intend to continue on that path with renewed vigor and commitment.”

Johnson, an NCAA Division III All-American wrestler, earned his bachelor’s degree in corporate fitness from The College of New Jersey and his master’s degree in educational administration and supervision from Rider University. A member of Phi Delta Kappa, he has also earned 30 credits from the University of LaVerne in health education and wellness, and a certificate in diversity and inclusion from Cornell University. He has worked in the Princeton Public Schools for 24 years. He taught health and physical education at Princeton High School and served as the head coach for wrestling and the spring boys’ track and field team for 19 years before he became an assistant principal. 

Birge, a native of Beijing, China, moved to the United States after the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. She worked as a bond analyst on Wall Street for a decade and was the first Asian American woman elected as mayor in New Jersey when she lived in Montgomery Township. She earned her bachelor’s degree in history from Bryn Mawr College and her master’s degree from Columbia University. She is currently working on her doctorate in educational leadership at Rutgers University. She previously taught math and special education at Princeton High School and was an award-winning debate coach for the high school’s speech and debate team. She also coached girls’ volleyball. Birge lives in Princeton and has four children. Three recently graduated from Princeton High School.