Princeton school board candidates discuss their views at forum

Questions centered on special education, school construction, playing fields and the athletic program.

By: Jeff Milgram
   Voters got their one and only chance to see the candidates for the Princeton Regional Board of Education on Monday night and questions centered on special education, school construction, playing fields and the athletic program.
   Five candidates were present — a flight carrying the sixth, the Rev. Frank Strasburger, was delayed — and faced questions from the school district’s Special Education PTO, which sponsored the candidates night for the 12th straight year and set the format.
   The forum was held in a packed library at the John Witherspoon Middle School.
   Questions asked by the PTO centered on special education issues, and candidates were given two minutes to respond. Virtually all of the candidates had problems keeping within the time limit, but all were good-natured about it.
   In his opening statement, Princeton Township challenger Walter Bliss said, "I think the next three years pose challenges that are out of the ordinary."
   Barbara Prince, a township incumbent, said, "Renovations pose a unique challenge. Running a school district is a very subtle balancing act."
   And, she said, "We have the professionals in place." She said The Hillier Group, the board’s architects, and Epic Management, the board’s construction management firm, have vast experience working on construction projects.
   Catherine Knight, an architect who is running for a seat from Princeton Township, said she would be "the owner’s representative" in talks with Hillier and Epic.
   But she also said, "I’m looking for excellence in academics. … I’m looking for excellence in athletics and I’m looking for excellence in the arts."
   Township incumbent Jeffrey Spear pointed with pride to his role in restoring civility and trust to the board and restoring "the board to its proper goal of setting policy" rather than micromanaging the district.
   Michael Mostoller, an architect who is running for a borough seat, said, "I want to continue to address the achievement gap."
   In an opening statement sent to the PTO, the Rev. Strasburger addressed the issue of learning and teaching styles.
   "For what we’re at last learning — in part from you all — is that all kids learn in a distinct way; all of them have learning difference," he said. "And as those described as ‘learning-disabled’ have forced our teachers to vary their modes of instruction to meet the needs of their students, what they’ve done is to show us what kind of teaching every student ought to be getting."
   The only heated moments came when Ms. Knight complained that the Facilities Committee meetings were closed to the public and when she and Mr. Mostoller criticized the architect’s drawings as outdated.
   "I’m frustrated there are no plans posted at the schools," Ms. Knight said. "We need to do a better job getting the information out."
   Anne Burns, chairwoman of the Facilities Committee, later said, "We began closing meetings in January when we started to realize we were not getting the work done to make decisions regarding program spaces and safety issues."
   She said meetings were dominated by questions about fields, parking and green space.
   "While we recognize that these are vitally important issues, they were not issues that had specific deadlines attached to them" and did not have to be approved by the state Department of Community Affairs, she said.
   She said the architects have made public presentations at board meetings.
   "We will have copies of the updated site plans, elevations and design drawings available in the schools by the end of the week," Ms. Burns said. "These designs have continued to evolve as the architects have incorporated suggestions from staff and administration."
   Both Mr. Mostoller and Ms. Knight denied they would try to change the designs.
   "It’s not appropriate to try to redesign at this point in time," Ms. Knight said. "There are a lot of details that have to be worked out. There will be a lot of change orders."
   During the question period, Ms. Knight supported a vocational program for Princeton High School students. "There should be an alternative track available for students at the high school," she said.
   Mr. Bliss said the district should explore starting preschool for low-income families.
   Former board member Michael Littman asked the candidates to explain the issues of playing fields and athletics.
   Mr. Mostoller said the interests of the athletes and their parents have not been represented on the board.
   Mr. Bliss said he wants athletics to be given the same status as academics and arts.
   Mr. Spear said the board has continually gone to the public for input on the playing fields.
   "The field plans have been refined and refined," he said.