A case of ‘he said, she said’

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School board declines to reinstate Princeton High School Principal Frank Chmiel

Former Princeton High School Principal Frank Chmiel lost his bid to be reinstated as the principal at the flagship school in the Princeton public school district.

The Princeton Public Schools Board of Education (BOE) listened to five hours of reasons why Chmiel should not be reinstated, public comments and rebuttals by Chmiel and his attorney at a special meeting May 15 at a public Donaldson hearing requested by the former principal.

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The school board upheld Superintendent Carol Kelley’s recommendation to not renew Chmiel’s contract after the board voted 2-8 for a motion to overturn the recommendation.

School board members Jean Durbin had motioned and voted “yes” to overturn Kelley’s recommendation. Robert Christopher, who is the representative for the Cranbury School District, voted “yes” to overturn Kelley’s recommendation, while School board president Dafna Kendal, and members Betsy Baglio, Beth Behrend, Debbie Bronfeld, Mara Franceschi, Susan Kanter, Brian McDonald and Michele Tuck Ponder voted “no.”

Chmiel requested the hearing in public before the school board following his dismissal March 17. A Donaldson hearing allows an employee who has not been rehired to respond to the reasons for dismissal in front of the school board. It may be held in public or in private.

Chmiel was expected to receive a letter within three days memorializing the school board’s action. Attorney David Schroth, who represented Chmiel, said it was possible that the decision would be appealed to the Office of Administrative Law. Civil litigation also is possible, he said.

More than 200 people filled the Princeton Middle School cafeteria, and more people watched the meeting unfold online. Attendees filled the approximately 160 metal folding chairs. The rest stood along the walls.

The meeting, which was at times raucous, turned into a matter of “he said, she said” – Chmiel versus Kelley – as he tried to sway the school board to allow him to keep his job. He was in his second year as principal.

During the first hour of the meeting, the school board listened to parents and students make a case for renewing Chmiel’s contract. They described him as a beloved and caring administrator who brought the students together after being locked out of school during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After, Kelley launched into a 21-page statement outlining Chmiel’s alleged failures and the reasons for his nonrenewal. She read the statement verbatim as it scrolled across a screen behind the school board members.

Kelley’s statement of reasons for nonrenewal listed a litany of issues that ranged from his lying about his COVID-19 vaccination status to a vote of no confidence by the high school teachers, failure to ensure a safe environment for students and staff, and failure to effectively communicate with Central Office administrators.

Kelley claimed Chmiel failed to lock down the high school after an intruder walked into the building. She claimed the intruder, who was later discovered to be a PHS graduate, was in the building for three hours.

Chmiel allegedly failed to communicate with Central Office administrators at the Valley Road administration building about matters on several occasions, she said. She cited a meeting in which an administrator was going to observe him, but it was canceled without notifying the administrators. Attempts to reschedule failed.

When it became clear that his contract would not be renewed, Kelley said efforts were made to find a graceful way out for him. There was an agreement in which he would have resigned at the end of March. His resignation would have been listed on a subsequent school board agenda, but the agreement was never implemented.

After Kelley finished reading the 21-page statement, Schroth, Chmiel’s attorney, set the stage for Chmiel’s presentation. Schroth characterized Kelley’s statement as “historical fiction.”

Schroth said evidence, such as emails between Chmiel and the administration, was missing from his personnel file. The lack of evidence – the allegedly missing documents – is a serious legal matter, he said.

The hearing is an opportunity for the school board to hear the full story and to allow Chmiel to make his case, Schroth said. The board can make an independent judgment. It’s a new night and a clean slate, he said.

Schroth called on several witnesses who offered support for Chmiel, before calling on him to speak.

Chmiel refuted many of the items in Kelley’s statement of reasons for his nonrenewal – from the issue of student safety to his COVID vaccination status. The reasons in Kelley’s statement were “inaccurate, wrong and dishonest,” he said.

“You have been severely misled,” Chmiel told the school board.

Chmiel claimed he reached out to Kelley on several occasions, but she did not respond. He also claimed that she used a Google doc for his evaluation and not a standard form. The school district would have needed permission from the state Department of Education to deviate from the standard form, he said.

Chmiel did not deny that he was not vaccinated against COVID-19 in 2021, but it was for medical reasons. He did receive his vaccination in early 2022. He admitted that he did not wear a mask at one meeting with staff, but he was seated more than six feet away.

Turning to school safety and the alleged intruder, Chmiel said the intruder was a PHS graduate who wanted to visit. A student opened a side door and let him in. When staff were made aware of it, the visitor was located within minutes and escorted out of the building, he said. The incident did not last three hours.

Discussing his achievements, Chmiel said he took the issue of equity seriously and built bridges between the high school and Black and Latino students. They felt acknowledged and welcomed, he said.

On the topic of his contract renewal, Chmiel said Kelley had always been non-committal when he asked. At one point, he asked Kelley whether he should be looking for a new job. She allegedly said he should always be looking for a new job, he said.

Earlier this school year, he and Kelley reached an agreement that he would resign and request a leave of absence before the end of the school year, he said. She would have to provide him with a good letter of reference, he said.

Chmiel said he agreed to resign and take a leave of absence, but then Kelley decided that she would not give him the letter. Instead, a letter would be sent to the district where he had applied for a job, he said. It violated the agreement they had reached.

Chmiel said he was tired of having the letter dangling in front of him. Kelley allegedly threatened to put him on administrative leave if he refused to resign. He did not resign and was placed on administrative leave March 17.

“Princeton Board of Education members, please stand up for fairness. You have a chance to set things right,” Chmiel said.

Kelley said she had listened carefully to Chmiel’s presentation. She said she wanted to make it clear that before drafting the reasons for nonrenewal, she reviewed those reasons with other Central Office administrators for accuracy.

“In the end, nothing I hear has changed my mind about employing Mr. Chmiel and my recommendation still stands,” Kelley said.

When school board president Kendal looked around for a reaction from school board members, Franceschi spoke up and said, “it was not an easy decision,” but she was not inclined to offer a motion to overturn Kelley’s recommendation.

Franceschi praised Chmiel and said he was a good man, but there were multiple concerns about him that had been raised to the school board. He had been given 11 Rice notices, when meant his employment was discussed by the board in closed session.

Franceschi said the relationship between Chmiel and Kelley was a “he said, she said” issue. While it may be a matter of being unable to work together, there was no assurance it would not happen again if there were to be a different superintendent, she said.

Behrend, who noted she has known Chmiel longer than he has been principal, said despite all that he had done for the students and the support he has received from parents and students, it was not enough for her to overturn Kelley’s recommendation.

Durbin said the process was flawed. There was no chance to cross-examine speakers, who were (also) not placed under oath, she said.

Although she had concerns, Durbin said, she was going to make a motion to overturn Kelley’s recommendation because “I have heard enough. This is going nowhere.”

When it appeared that no one would second the motion, Cranbury Public Schools representative Robert Christopher raised his hand to second the motion and to clear the way for a vote.

Business Administrator Matthew Bouldin polled the board, which voted against Durbin’s motion. Chmiel was told he would receive a letter about the Donaldson hearing results within three days.

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