Superintendent of Schools Carol Kelley’s resignation and her request for a paid leave of absence were formally approved by the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education at a special meeting Oct. 30.
The school board voted 8-1 on both matters. School board member Michele Tuck-Ponder cast the lone “no” vote on the two resolutions. She also abstained on a motion to appoint an administrator to serve as the acting superintendent of schools.
Kelley took an immediate paid leave of absence as of Oct. 27. Her resignation, less than three years into her four-year contract, takes effect Aug. 31, 2024. Her contract was set to expire June 30, 2025.
Kelley is being paid $249,696 for the 2023-24 school year, which marks the third year of her four-year contract. She would have earned $254,690 in the final year of the contract.
The school board appointed Rebecca Gold to serve as the acting superintendent of schools through Nov. 30. The school board will then appoint someone to carry out the superintendent’s duties for the remainder of Kelley’s term, said school board president Dafna Kendal.
Gold, who is the interim assistant superintendent for human resources, public information and community relations, had filled in as the administrator-in-charge whenever Kelley was out of the district, Kendal said.
Tuck-Ponder said she voted “no” to accept Kelley’s resignation and to approve a paid leave of absence because the school board had failed to manage its most important responsibility “to manage, support and protect the superintendent of schools.”
“We are in this position because of how this responsibility was managed – or mismanaged – by this board from the outset. We will be held accountable for our actions and decisions, and that is appropriate,” Tuck-Ponder said.
“I can only hope that we hold ourselves accountable and that going forward, we resist the urge to act in haste and without consideration of the long-term consequences of our actions,” Tuck-Ponder said.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, resident Jim Wulf questioned whether Kelley had resigned or was fired. If she had resigned, she would not have been paid for the 2023-24 school year, he said.
“Reading between the lines, the school board fired her and had to pay out the rest of the contract,” said Wulf, who served on the Hopewell Valley Regional School District Board of Education before moving to Princeton.
Wulf asked how the school district could afford to pay more than $200,000 to Kelley while it would also have to pay an interim superintendent of schools. He urged the school board to not pay Kelley, and not to replace the superintendent until a new school board is in place.
“I would highly suggest that each one of you think about resigning. This is a really bad mess and you let it go on too long and a lot of the community really suffered,” Wulf told the school board.
Resident Pamela Strum said she held the school board responsible for its actions. There were many “red flags,” such as allowing Kelley to hire a personal public relations firm and to hire a personal attorney.
Strum asked why Kelley was so concerned about her image, to the extent that she had to have her own public relations firm. Kelley would have been judged on her performance, she said.
She further questioned whether Kelley was paying for the public relations firm and the attorney from her own salary, or if the taxpayers were picking up the tab. She pointed out that the workshops and conferences that Kelley attended also were expensive.
“If the school district paid for the public relations firm and the attorney, and now for the 10-month leave of absence, it represents money that is being taken away from the overcrowded schools that are in appalling condition, as well as from excellent teachers and curriculum improvements,” Strum said.
“It’s all on you.”
Jennifer Suttmeier, who lives in Cranbury, called on the school board to include the Princeton Public Schools community as it searched for a new superintendent of schools.
Cranbury sends its high school students to Princeton High School.
Suttmeier said the school board should hold focus groups and discuss its criteria for hiring a new superintendent. She also urged the school board not to send out poorly constructed “check the box” surveys, as it did earlier this year to ask what characteristics should be sought in a Princeton High School principal.
The next superintendent of school should align with the community’s values of excellence in education, accountability and fairness, and prioritize students, Suttmeier said.
“Please engage with us and genuinely listen to us. Remember that we are your constituents. We want to trust you and we want to support you,” Suttmeier told the school board.