Princeton Board of Education welcomes recently elected members

photo by Alan Gu

After several months of campaigning, Beth Behrend, Jess Deutsch, and Michele Tuck-Ponder were elected to the Board of Education on November 7.

As the new Board members reflect on their campaigns, they largely believe that voters were drawn to each candidate’s varying background and experiences, which would assist the decisions on upcoming issues such as the referendum and expansion.

“I think [voters] … really were looking to my background [in a legal career] and understanding finance and how boards work and my ability to possibly interject fiscal prudence in the referendum process,” Behrend said.

Deutsch hopes to use her background to increase the wellness of each student.

“My background is in education and in social work, and so I think that gives me a perspective that can create a really bold vision for what our schools can be working on,” Deutsch said. “As a social worker, that I understand that the Board is responsible not just to students and their parents but all the citizens of this community.”

Tuck-Ponder’s agenda includes a focus on increasing equity and closing the opportunity gap in the district.

“I’ve been living in Princeton for 26 years, and I’ve been hearing about the inequity in the school, especially for African-American [and] Latino children, that there is this elitist culture where some kids have great opportunities to do great things and go to top-ranked schools and other kids don’t, and there is institutional racism in the system,” Tuck-Ponder said. “I decided I wanted to do something, and I thought that [where] my gifts and talents would be best served would be on the Board of Education.”

The candidates note that with the district focusing on student wellness, there are proposals for changes to the school day and calendar that intend to benefit the student population. The district’s actions are part of its initiative to help students find purpose in learning rather than a singular focus on grades and college acceptance.

“I think how we do school is going to start to change a little bit, and I’ve heard Superintendent Cochrane talk about where the future of education is going and how we need to get away from this test-oriented schooling and focus more on student-oriented learning,” Behrend said.

Concerns regarding equity are also at the forefront of the new Board members’ goals.

“I want to ensure that we have high expectations of every student, that we don’t think that certain kids are going to be successful and other kids are not going to be … and that the teachers and administrators are going to do everything to support every student,” Tuck-Ponder said.

Another major topic of discussion for the Board stems from the district’s plans to address issues of overcrowding, including a new building for a fifth through sixth grade school and the implementation of other new initiatives.

“One of the exciting things on the horizon is the idea of having community schools, which are schools that bring together services and resources for the whole community beyond just the students,” Deutsch said. “How we do it remains to be seen, but one of the things we have to as a district is [to think about] about how the schools [created from the referendum will] serve the whole community.”

However, because the new members will be joining in January, they are currently focused on following the Board’s discussions by attending meetings as members of the public and catching up with past Board decisions.

“Given the fact that [the Board has] talked about a referendum in September … that means they have to submit plans to the state by March,” Behrend said. “If I join the Board in January, I do think there’s going to be a lot of work to be done [in] finalizing and figuring out what the right scope of the project is for the referendum.”

Because there are several issues that the Board must address, achieving a majority decision may prove difficult.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people, and I think that there’s some agreement, [but] I think that people have different ideas about what’s important,” Tuck-Ponder said. “Some people will say it’s wellness, some people will say it’s overcrowding, some people will say making sure that we care about what happens to students in special [education] … [these issues are] all very valuable and important, I just think people have different priorities.”

Communication between members of the Princeton community and the Board is essential for residents to convey their opinions on major decisions.

“I found this whole experience [running for the Board] to be very affirming and inspiring because [at forums], people were really into understanding the issues and … also wanted to share ideas with me,” Behrend said. “Being part of [the election] was really inspiring because you realize locally [that] we still have really functional democracy.”

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