Princeton school board candidates share views at forum

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From the need for oversight on $26.9 million worth of school construction projects to working more closely with municipal government, there was little disagreement overall on major issues by the four candidates seeking three seats on the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education.

Debra Bronfeld, Susan Kanter, Dafna Kendal and Greg Stankiewicz are vying for the three open seats. Bronfeld and Stankiewicz are seeking re-election. Kendal is a former school board member, and Kanter is a newcomer.

The four candidates offered their views on a variety of topics at the League of Women Voters of the Princeton Area’s candidates forum that was held on Oct. 2.

Asked for their view on the relationship between the school board and Princeton Council and if they should work together to plan effectively for the future of the town, the four candidates agreed that it would be worthwhile.

Stankiewicz said the school board meets with the town on a quarterly basis. Mayor Liz Lempert and Princeton Council are receptive to working together with the school board, he said. The school board and the council have hired a consultant to look at the potential for shared services, he said.

“From the outside looking in,” Kanter said, “they need to develop a closer relationship. When Princeton does something that affects the schools, they should work in a collaborative way. They should meet more often, maybe monthly.”

Kendal agreed that the two bodies need to work together. There is one taxpayer, but two entities, she said. The school board should be included when the town discusses voluntary contributions by Princeton University, she added.

Bronfeld said the school board and the council “should be together at the table.” She pointed to the potential for shared services, and added that it would be great if they could do more together.

Harking back to the 2001 school bond referendum that experienced delays, cost overruns and litigation, the candidates were asked how they would handle the current projects being funded by a $26.9 million bond referendum passed in December 2018.

The candidates agreed the source of the problem at that time was the lack of oversight.

Bronfeld and Kendal said the school board should not have hired Epic Management Inc. to serve as the construction management team for the current project. Epic was the construction management company in charge of the 2001 project.

Bronfeld said she did not vote to hire Epic Management Inc. at the school board’s Feb. 26 meeting, because she was “hesitant” to work with this company. It needs to be held accountable for the current project, she said.

Kendal, who served on the school board from 2016 to 2018, said overseeing the projects is not the role of the school board. She added that litigation from the 2001 bond referendum projects was only settled in 2017.

Stankiewicz said there will always be issues, but they can be overcome with a good team, which is place now – David Harding, the director of facilities, and Epic Management Inc. An engaged school board also is necessary, he said.

Kanter said planning ahead is important at the start of a project. It is necessary to deal with problems and stay on top of the issues. “I agree, you can’t take your eye off the ball,” she said.

There was less unanimity when the candidates were asked about the decision to hire the consulting firm of Milone and MacBroom to help address the challenges posed by a growing student body and aging facilities.

Kanter, Kendal and Stankiewicz agreed on the need to hire a consultant in the wake of community concerns about bond referendums. The school board had attempted to put a $129.6 million bond referendum on the December 2018 ballot, but pulled back in the face of stiff opposition.

Kanter said it would been more expensive not to hire the consultant now, given the need to reach out to people to find out what they are thinking. School district officials did not do a good job in reaching out to explain the $129.6 million bond referendum, she said.

Milone and MacBroom has experience in planning, Stankiewicz said. It is well-known for its community engagement. Stankiewicz and Kendal agreed there was a lot of mistrust of the school board by the community.

But Bronfeld, who voted against hiring the consultant, said the school board should focus on the $26.9 million bond referendum. She also said she would like to have updated information from the demographer on future student enrollment, because to approach planning without new numbers is “wrong.”

Asked about potentially buying the Westminster Choir College campus if the choir college is relocated to Rider University’s Lawrence Township campus, Stankiewicz declined to comment.

“It’s a fluid situation,” Stankiewicz said.

Kendal said she would not want to be a part of its destruction. Any settlement to purchase the choir college’s campus “would be mired in years of litigation,” she said. Opponents of the sale would fight it, she said.

Bronfeld said that while “it is not on my radar” to buy the campus, it would be nice to purchase land next to the John Witherspoon Middle School that is part of the campus. The choir college is a beautiful school, but it is not going anywhere, she said.