To the Editor:
Thank you to the Board of Education for taking a roll-call vote in deciding to uphold the recommendation of Superintendent Carol Kelley not to renew Frank Chmiel’s contract as Princeton High School principal. Even though Monday, May 15, was the first chance anyone in the public had to hear the reasons for the Superintendent’s recommendations, for 2 months a parent group demanding Chmiel’s reinstatement has been unrelenting in their attacks on the BOE and Superintendent Kelley. In Monday’s public hearing requested by Mr. Chmiel, we learned the issues: Mr. Chmiel’s questionable judgment in multiple incidents at PHS reported to the district by school staff, students, and families, and inconsistent communication with the central administration about the details of these incidents, potentially putting the district in legal jeopardy and at risk for increased resource expenditures.
For me, the most resonant of these transgressions is the undisputed fact that Mr. Chmiel did not disclose his unvaccinated status related to COVID-19 and was lax about masking policies at school, in defiance of district policies and state law at the height of the pandemic. Mr. Chmiel did not deny, but rather rationalized, his behavior by saying he was afraid of the vaccine because his father died young of a heart attack, and that masking impeded relationship-building. He didn’t share these concerns with the district and ask for guidance, he just unilaterally rejected vaccination and was evasive about it until confronted directly. He later apologized.
As a parent, I rely on school principals to be stewards of district policies and state laws which are developed by elected representatives. I want to be confident that I am sending my child every day into a safe environment. We are a family living with lung disease, and we kept our son in virtual learning until the vaccines became available for adults in early 2021. We relied on the district policy and state law requiring vaccination for public school staff and masking for everyone when we sent our son back for in-person instruction. It is heartbreaking to find out that a principal would betray the public trust and take it upon himself to disregard policies and laws in favor of his own preferences, instead of honestly and immediately disclosing concerns and seeking remedies. Apologies are too little, too late when you have a loved one at risk.
The parent group insists it will continue its efforts to recall the BOE, force Kelley out, and reinstate Chmiel. For me, it is important to remember that the members of the parent group speak only for themselves. They do not, as they suggest, represent any other teachers, students or parents and certainly not a “silent majority” of the community at large, who all have other ways to be heard. Teachers have legitimate representatives in their union and in the Princeton Regional Education Association – through these channels, 140 teachers reportedly complained about Chmiel’s non-adherence to masking. Families and students can and did go directly to the district to report troubling incidents at PHS; one student bravely spoke in support of the Superintendent’s recommendation Monday night, enduring abusive heckling from members of the parent group in the audience. And we, in the public, vote.
The elected BOE members did their fiduciary duty when they represented the public in every closed meeting where Mr. Chmiel’s performance was discussed (11 times in 18 months, more than any other employee), when they gave him a chance and a coach to improve his performance during 2022, when they listened to hours of public comment related to his non-renewal, when they reassessed the Superintendent’s recommendation in light of Mr. Chmiel’s public rebuttal. They held a fully transparent vote, with some BOE members articulating their reasoning, deciding 8-2 to accept the Superintendent’s recommendation not to renew. Each BOE member is on the record and fully accountable to voters for their decisions, unlike the members of the parent group, who are accountable to no one.
I hope that the BOE can now direct its energies and resources to hiring a PHS principal who not only inspires school spirit and inclusion, but also can manage to steadfastly administer district policies and state laws regarding public health, school security, anti-bullying, and mental health supports.
Mary Stober Murray