Letters: The Ministry of Truth comes to Princeton Public Schools

To the Editor:

In a 1983 op-ed piece in the “Washington Post”, U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan paraphrased Bernard Baruch’s famous quote, writing:

There is a center in American politics. It can govern. The commission is just an example of what can be done. First, get your facts straight. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Second, decide to live with the facts. Third, resolve to surmount them. Because, fourth, what is at stake is our capacity to govern.

Sadly, it appears the Princeton Board of Education missed that op-ed and its admonishment to public officials and as a result may lose its capacity to govern.  As the Board controls a budget of ~$97 million ($25 million more than the city’s itself) and the quality of Princeton Public Schools underpins property values, its conduct should be a serious concern for all residents. 

In its Monday (May 15th) evening meeting, the Board glossed over and ignored serious inconsistencies in statements of purported facts made by Superintendent Dr. Carol Kelley and former Princeton High School Principal Frank Chmiel and voted to support the Superintendent Kelley’s recommendation to not renew Principal Chmiel’s contract.  This essentially ended the apparent majority of the community’s hope that the popular Chmiel’s administrative leave would be rescinded and he would continue his tenure as PHS Principal for many years to come. 

In a robust, transparent process with all facts available to all, the board’s decision might be still controversial.  However, the community remains unsettled precisely because the Board has not provided all the facts nor seems interested in obtaining them for themselves. 

Among that nearly dozen things that Chmiel asserted in refuting Kelley’s “Statement of Reasons” for his non-renewal were that Kelley: a) falsified two of the three in-person observations she was required to make of him during a school year and completed only two of the required six in his two-year tenure; b) failed to maintain accurate personnel records by not including his rebuttals to his performance evaluations and other matters in his files; c) lied that there was a teacher’s vote of no confidence on Chmiel, d) lied to or mislead the board about Chmiel’s response to alleged safety issues at PHS and Chmiel’s communication with her on these matters; and, d) diminished or dismissed Chmiel’s creation of an inclusive and equitable environment and culture at PHS.  Several speakers called by Chmiel’s attorney credibly supported the last three points.  But, most importantly, Chmiel noted that the records of the alleged falsified observations and his rebuttals on personnel matters and communications to Kelley around safety issues should be readily available in his PHS electronic accounts which he has been locked out of.  

If Kelley were a beloved, long-term Superindent with the trust of the community many might give her and the Board the benefit of the doubt.  But Kelley was hired at the same time as Chmiel, several parents from her last position (Oak Park, Illinois) have opined that her tenure there was mixed at best with several principal and teacher turnovers and expensive consultants bills, and her first year at Princeton was marred by controversy over her approach to math curriculum and an alleged misrepresentation of her use of a consultants and a Board that ignored parent concerns over these matters. 

In short, while Chmiel’s two years engendered strong community spirit and support, Kelley’s equal tenure (and the Board’s support, or covering, for her) has been a polarizing lightning rod. 

But in the end, this is not about a popularity contest, nor does it need to be a “he said, she said” matter as Board member Mara Franceschi opined during her statement of false praise about Chmiel. 

Chmiel and his attorney raised serious, credible assertions about the veracity of Kelley’s Statement of Causes and her administration.  Most of, if not all, the inconsistencies can be verified one way or the other.  The Board has a obligation to Dr. Kelley, Mr. Chmiel, and the community to get the facts straight and provide them to all openly.  Once they have done that, we, as a community, must live with them and surmount them – whether they show that Chmiel’s non-renewal was justified or Kelley’s dismissal is warranted. 

Without this approach, the Board of Education will have truly become the Ministry of Truth and lost its capacity to govern and the community will not be able to heal or move on from this unfortunate issue.


Ian Copeland