I like Frank Chmiel. My son, a Princeton High School tenth grader, likes Frank Chmiel. I liked the friendly, earnest Chmiel Spiels I’d receive in my inbox every Sunday evening. I like that Mr. Chmiel gave a warbled rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit at the fall pep rally. His strong connection with many, many students and many, many parents is undeniable. That is a critical aspect of a principal’s job, especially important in the wake of the isolation of COVID.
But I also know that connecting with students and parents is only part of a principal’s job and that I have no idea how Mr. Chmiel performed in his other critical areas of responsibility. But the eleven people who do know — the ten members of our board of education and our superintendent, a group that often disagrees vigorously with one another — were unanimous in their conclusion that Mr. Chmiel’s departure was the right step for our district. To me, that’s telling.
We may never know the details of why Mr. Chmiel was placed on leave. New Jersey law strongly protects personnel privacy, as it should. But I have met every member of this board of education and I know several members well, so I can say with confidence that this is a group of ten extraordinarily hard-working volunteers who take their responsibilities to our children, our teachers, our administrators, and our town very seriously. They do this unpaid, unglamorous work because they believe in public education, as do we all.
The recent events surrounding Mr. Chmiel’s departure have caused a good deal of unrest and hard feelings among parents and students in our town. Such strong emotions are not a bad thing — we care because we believe in our town’s extraordinary public schools. But to keep our public schools strong, we need to keep the vitriol in check. If this debate devolves into name-calling — accusations of wokeism on one side and racism on the other — then Princeton risks falling into the same toxic pattern we’ve seen in so many other school board debates around the country. When that happens, there’s one clear loser: public education. One of the core skills our children learn in school is to treat each other civilly and disagree respectfully, no matter the intensity of their emotions. For the good of our district, I hope we all remember that lesson.