These highlights are an unofficial summary of actions taken and topics discussed during the public session of the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education on January 26, 2021. They are intended to provide timely information to our community, but they do not represent an official accounting of the meeting. Official minutes will be approved by the Board at its next meeting.
BOARD SUMMARY: January 26, 2021
The public is invited to participate in Board meetings via Zoom, and we hope these updates are helpful. You can watch the full board meeting on the district’s YouTube channel, PPS Live Events.
Welcome (Video 2:20)
Board President Beth Behrend welcomed everyone to the meeting and noted that Interim Superintendent Barry Galasso would not be attending. Filling in was Assistant Superintendent Robert Ginsberg.
Minutes of the previous meeting were approved.
Public Forum: First of Two Opportunities for Public Comment (Video 6:00)
Community member Rod Montgomery questioned the choice of words in an article about PHS's new racial literacy course citing the quote: “We call them social justice warriors—nobody leaves the course as they enter it. They want to do more.” He felt that the word "warrior" was unnecessarily provocative. He expressed his wish to see the teaching of understanding people of various kinds rather than domination.
Student Board Member Report (Video 9:20)
Yash Roy said that they have not yet conducted the planned student climate survey because of the transition in PHS principals, and that it will be administered in the near future. He said that as the first semester ends, he wanted to talk about student wellness and mental health, emphasizing that differing school day start times—a result of switching between remote and hybrid learning because of the pandemic—is stressful for students. “The toll is significant for a lot of students,” he said, particularly upperclassmen who are dealing with standardized testing and college prep issues. He hopes that this issue can be improved in the second semester.
He noted that he and Maya Kahn are participating in a racial justice workshop to make sure all voices and perspectives are represented at PHS.
Kahn added they are working to create a platform that will allow student justice clubs to share their activities with more members, and that they are looking forward to a day of activism. She added that the feedback she and Roy receive from students indicates that they like to be in an environment that supports an open community.
Betsey Baglio noted that the board is concerned about student mental health, and asked if it would be addressed in the survey, specifically if students still feel a connection to an adult if they need help?
Roy respond that they are treating the survey as the opportunity to look into student stress, the workload, and access to support.
Board President Report (Video 15:50)
President Behrend noted, “We continue to soldier on through this crisis and through the changes we have every week….We know it’s very challenging for everyone.” The board has reorganized and now has new committee structures. The facilities and finance committees have been consolidated into an operations committee in an effort to be more efficient and effective. She noted that the board and other administrators have spent a substantial amount of time recently in numerous meetings focused on many items, including the search for a new superintendent, planning the budget, and the negotiation cycle. She said that they hope to have an announcement regarding a superintendent very soon, and that the public meeting on the budget will be held on February 9.
She thanked her colleagues for their hard work.
Dafna Kendal shared that she is very grateful to the district’s teachers and support staff for their dedication to the students, noting that PPS has been very fortunate that it has not had to close schools because of a lack of staff, as other districts have. She said that current research indicates that there is little evidence that schools have significantly contributed to community transmission of Covid, and that PPS has rigorously followed all CDC precautions regarding masks, social distancing, hand washing, and more, from the very beginning of the pandemic.
Susan Kanter thanked the teachers, principals, and custodial staff who have been helpful in referendum construction efforts, with particular gratitude to the guidance, special education, and physical education departments. “We appreciate everyone’s flexibility in moving and adjusting so quickly,” she said. “Thanks to all who make this district better.”
Superintendent’s Report 21:00
Robert Ginsberg noted that by combining cohorts the district has been able to offer four days of in-person learning (instead of two) per week for kindergarten and first grade students signed up for hybrid learning. This was done in consultation with health advisors, and students are masked and six feet apart. He introduced a video (22:00) created by CP kindergarten teachers, showing how the large cafeteria has been outfitted with colorful bulletin boards and various learning materials, and how the students can make use of a very large floor space, which has been marked to ensure that the children stand or sit six feet apart. This effort has received a tremendously positive response, he said. He added that PPS has invited children from various grade levels who do better with in-person learning back into the classroom, and that the youngest and most vulnerable now have a greater opportunity to thrive during the pandemic.
Ginsberg said that PHS has about 70 percent remote students and 30 percent hybrid, which is roughly the same as all of Mercer County. Acting Principal Jared Warren and his team are looking at having the cohorts come back four days each week instead of every other week. It’s not possible to combine cohorts at the middle school because a higher percentage of PUMS students are signed up for hybrid learning and there are not enough large spaces.
Ginsberg added that the high school has administered over 300 PSAT exams to 11th graders who were in the building with masks and social distancing, and thanked the teachers, counselors, and administrators for making it happen.
He mentioned that the first of four curriculum forums will be held this week—secondary school math on Wednesday, January 28, at 4 p.m. and elementary schools on Thursday, January 29, at 4 p.m. Zoom links will be provided by the PTO.
He said that a survey has been send to parents of pre-kindergarten through fifth grade students in an attempt to find out how their children are adapting to the current circumstances and to assess their emotional growth. The questions are phrased in such a way that they will help us improve our hybrid and remote learning for the next few months. The survey was also available in Spanish. A similar survey for secondary students and their parents is planned, and there will probably be a focus group to allow students to express their thoughts and concerns directly.
He introduced a video (30:24) about the referendum projects that are nearly complete at PUMS, featuring Principal Jason Burr giving a brief tour of the innovation lab, which features flexible walls and easily reconfigurable furniture, all designed to provide a multipurpose, collaborative space that can quickly be adapted to meet changing needs.
The video also featured the new nurses’ suite, created by reclaiming space that formerly housed an office and photocopying equipment. This significant increase in space allowed the creation of a more functional exam room and an isolation room, as well as ample resting areas for students who are feeling unwell or waiting to be picked up by a parent or guardian. Access to the suite is now more secure and streamlined, enhancing both safety and privacy.
Board Committee Reports (Video 34:38)
Not all committees have met yet this year, so not all had reports.
Facilities Committee (Video 35:00)
Susan Kanter announced the progress of the referendum projects, noting that elementary projects are nearly complete, PUMS is working on its punch list and PHS is looking at its projects and how they will fit into the spring budget. The committee also discussed sustainability efforts.
Finance Committee (Video 38:38)
Brian McDonald said that the board will be asked to approve the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report and the Auditor’s Management Report. He expressed gratitude to Matt Bouldin and his team, adding that the auditors had “zero recommendations for changes or improvements.”
He gave an update on the expenses incurred during the pandemic; there has been a decrease in net expenses of $131,000 since December 2020, partially because of reimbursements from the CARES act and other funds. There may be other savings to be found in some areas, such as supplies and transportation; he expressed hope that Congress will pass a stimulus act for education, which would further reduce our outlay.
The board will also be asked to approve extending the contract for the Epic construction company through September 2021. The amount is $123,000.
The finance committee recommended that the board authorize a request for bids for work on HVAC systems, building control systems, and roof repairs, work that should ultimately help limit repair costs. It could total $2 million. The board is being asked to authorize bids at this time, not the work itself. That authorization would be requested in the future.
Personnel Committee (Video 40:30)
Debbie Bronfeld reported that the committee met on January 12 and discussed a goal of hiring a permanent PHS principal by the beginning of the next school year. She announced that the school’s nurses will be helping the Princeton Health Department administer vaccines, and that the board will be approving two improved job descriptions for existing positions—a bilingual technologist and an assistant human resource generalist.
Student Achievement Committee (Video 41:20)
Betsy Baglio reported that the committee has met twice since the last December meeting, and turned the report over to Dafna Kendal, who chaired the December 18 meeting. Kendal said that the committee discussed changes to student programs for 2021-22, and that the Big Brother Big Sister program has been changed to Mindful Mentors, which is open to seniors who are selected via application made during their junior year. There will be new courses in programming and science; a bioethics course has been eliminated because there is a similar research course.
The PHS Introduction to Racial Literacy course has 100 students enrolled in January; another 100 will take the course in March. It will be a requirement for graduation beginning in 2025. The committee also heard an update on technology and counseling initiatives throughout the district.
Betsy Baglio noted that she is happy to be transitioning the leadership of the committee to Kendal, and added that at the committee’s most recent meeting they heard from Keisha Smith-Carrington, who discussed the hard work of PPS library specialists. The committee also talked briefly about the calendar; the schedule for 2021 meetings will be posted online.
The board approved all Action Consent items as noted in all sections of this agenda as appropriate.
There was a discussion of the lead time required for the projects the board will be seeking bids on; the work should be awarded by March if they are to be completed over the summer. Brian McDonald reiterated the importance of allowing the board and the public to learn more about the projects before the board is asked to approve a request for bids, and the importance of following a timetable that will allow for summer work.
Behrend said she hopes there can be a public discussion before a decision needs to be made about approval; Kendal said she hopes there can be information provided about health and safety issues associated with the pool project at PUMS because the chlorine smell is strong and can be detected elsewhere in the building. Behrend responded that a full report on the pool and the necessary work has been requested.
Public Forum: Second of Two Opportunities for Public Comment (Video 59:20)
Closing (Video 59:25)
Betsy Baglio noted that the school calendar for 2021-22 will be available soon, and she encouraged her fellow committee chairs to post public meetings on the website.
Behrend adjourned the meeting.
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