At a meeting that turned raucous at times, the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education hired Kathie Foster to serve as Princeton High School’s acting principal, despite calls to reinstate former Principal Frank Chmiel.
The school board voted unanimously to appoint Foster at its March 28 meeting. She will earn $820 per day. She began work March 29 and will serve through June 30. She is a retired superintendent of schools and principal, and was the Princeton school district’s interim assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in 2022.
Dozens of parents stood patiently in line outside the Princeton Middle School and waited to be allowed inside, which is where the school board meeting was held. In-person school board meetings are typically held at the Valley Road administration building.
Many parents carried signs showing displeasure with Superintendent of Schools Carol Kelley and with the school board. Some of the signs called for more transparency, to “Stop the abuse of power” and to “Listen to your community.” There were a few signs in support of Chmiel.
Chmiel was placed on administrative leave from Princeton High School and locked out of the school and his office March 17. There was no explanation for his dismissal, nor was he mentioned by name in the email announcing that he was no longer the principal.
As soon as the doors opened ahead of the 7:30 p.m. meeting, parents who were carrying the signs were told they could not bring them into the meeting. One parent protested loudly and told the security monitors that it was a violation of her First Amendment rights.
The security monitors relented and allowed the parents to carry them into the meeting. They held up the signs during the meeting, which turned raucous at times. School board president Dafna Kendal threatened to stop the meeting if attendees continued to be disrespectful.
Kelley defended her decision to put Chmiel on administrative leave in her remarks at the beginning of the meeting. She said that as the schools superintendent, she has to make difficult decisions. They are never personal and are made in the best interests of the staff, students and community.
Her comments were loudly booed.
Following Kelley’s remarks, Kendal set aside one hour for public comment before tackling the meeting agenda. She allowed another hour of public comment before adjourning. About 40 parents and students offered remarks, most in favor of Chmiel and critical of how Chmiel’s dismissal was handled.
Several speakers called on the school board to postpone hiring Foster. They also expressed a loss of trust in the school board.
Cranbury parent Gwen Parker said she had a “simple ask” for the school board – to postpone hiring Foster as the acting principal for a couple of reasons including what she says has been an obvious loss of trust for the school board and superintendent and the many questions about Chmiel’s abrupt departure.
And Kelley’s announcement last week that she expected Foster to be appointed gave the impression that it was a “done deal,” Parker said.
Another Cranbury parent urged the school board to hold off on Foster’s appointment to avoid more disruption. She said the two assistant principals should handle the year-end administrative tasks, instead of bringing in an acting principal.
“The community is speaking loud and clear. We don’t want Foster. We want Frank Chmiel back as the principal,” she said.
Princeton resident Lorri Mountainland chastised the school board for taking action now, instead of waiting for Chmiel’s contract to expire June 30. There was no need to put Chmiel on administrative leave in the middle of the school year, unless he had committed an egregious act, she said.
“I have experience with the process of non-renewal of a contract. Why would Dr. Kelley make such a recommendation at this time, rather than wait for the end of the school year? In my mind, there can only be one reason – a hidden agenda on the part of Dr. Kelley,” Mountainland said.
Mountainland worked for 40 years in the Franklin Township school district. She is a former president of the Franklin Township Education Association, which is the teachers’ union. She worked with Chmiel, who was the vice principal and principal at Franklin High School before he took the job at Princeton High School in 2021.
Princeton High School sophomore Zoey Shaevitz said Chmiel’s termination was rushed and not thought-out. As the secretary of the high school’s sophomore Student Council, he said, its officers ask the students what they want.
The school board is elected by the residents to make decisions and to represent them, he said. If the community has to come out and tell the school board that it is making the wrong decision, then “what’s happening,” he asked.
“You are not representing what the people want,” Shaevitz said.