By Donald Gilpin
A crowd of about 200 — almost all supporting dismissed Princeton High School Principal Frank Chmiel — overflowed the Princeton Middle School cafeteria on Monday evening along with hundreds more watching his “Donaldson hearing” remotely on the district’s YouTube channel.
They listened to an hour of public comment, then Superintendent Carol Kelley’s statement of reasons for Chmiel’s nonrenewal, then Chmiel’s lawyer and six witnesses refuting those reasons, and then Chmiel’s own 79-minute response to counter Kelley’s charges and cite his accomplishments, followed by the lawyer’s summation.
It was about four hours and fifty minutes into the proceedings before it was finally the turn of the Princeton Public School’s (PPS) Board of Education (BOE) to take action. They could choose not to vote, which would end the hearing with the superintendent’s recommendation of nonrenewal upheld. Or they could vote and decide by majority either to support Kelley or to overturn her recommendation and reinstate Chmiel.
Within 10 minutes the outcome was determined, as BOE member Jean Durbin called for a vote and was seconded by Cranbury BOE member Robert Christopher. Though Durbin and Christopher then voted to overturn Kelley’s recommendation, the other eight Board members supported Kelley’s recommendation.
STILL SMILING: Frank Chmiel, ousted Princeton High School principal, thanked his numerous supporters following a five-hour hearing on Monday night in which he made his case for reinstatement. The Princeton Public Schools Board of Education voted 8-2 to support the superintendent’s recommendation that his contract not be renewed.
Kelley’s reading of her 21-page “Statement of Reasons” was listened to closely by the crowd. Chmiel had waived his privacy rights for Monday’s session, and the public was hearing for the first time exactly what the charges against him were.
They included PIPS (performance improvement plans) not effectively acted upon, lapses in attention to the safety and security of students and staff, “increasingly erratic behavior,” a vote of no confidence by PHS teachers, criticism from the PREA teachers’ union, a “lack of trust and confidence of the staff,” false representation of vaccination status, incidents where decision-making and judgement were questioned, “failure to change and improve,” and communication failures, particularly with the superintendent. Kelley noted that there had been 11 different Rice notices, occasions when the Board felt obliged to hold formal discussion about Chmiel’s employment.
Chmiel’s attorney then presented his case, culminating in Chmiel’s 79-minute appeal. “This is a document of historical fiction,“ said Schroth, referring to the superintendent’s Statement of Reasons. Schroth claimed that evidence to support Kelley’s criticisms had been requested but not provided, that documents supporting Chmiel that should have been in his file had been removed or not placed there, that there actually had not been a vote of no confidence by the PHS faculty, and that the BOE had received bad or incomplete information about Chmiel.
Schroth then called six different witnesses to attest to Chmiel’s effectiveness and to counter the superintendent’s reasons for nonrenewal. The witnesses included students and a parent, a security guard/building monitor, a 40-year educator and experienced mentor of principals who had worked with Chmiel, and a PHS teacher with 30 years’ experience who called Chmiel “the best principal I’ve ever worked under.”
Chmiel then made his own case. “I feel you have been misled,” he told the Board. He went on to accuse the superintendent of dishonesty, noting his success at reducing absenteeism, at helping to make PHS a safe place and promoting greater security, at communicating effectively. He claimed that the central administration had failed to hold the required number of observations to evaluate him, and he said that he communicated frequently with the district leaders at Valley Road and that the communication failures had been Kelley’s.
“There is a pattern of bad information and dishonesty in the statement of reasons,” Chmiel charged.
One BOE member at the end of the evening described the proceedings as a considerable amount of “he said, she said,” and in fact Kelley’s and Chmiel’s descriptions of numerous incidents and situations were frequently vastly different.
As Chmiel finished his presentation, the crowd stood and cheered, loudly chanting “We want Chmiel” and waving the small blue flags they had waved to signal their support throughout the evening.
The “Donaldson hearing” was not intended for debate or for Board members to enter into explanation or argument, but following Chmiel’s presentation and the superintendent’s comment that despite some inconsistencies between Chmiel’s account and hers she remained committed to her recommendation not to renew, two BOE members explained why they would not support Chmiel’s case.
In danger at times of being drowned out by unhappy members of the audience, BOE member Mara Franceschi addressed Chmiel. “This is not easy for me at all,” she said. “I take this very seriously. You have done many things very well and I thank you for that. The last thing I wanted for the high school was more change. I have listened to a huge outpouring of support, however I believe in the statement of reasons.”
She went on to add that there had been “a continuous drip, drip” of issues involving Chmiel over the past year and a half and multiple Board discussions about him. “You were ineffective in the basic boring job tasks that are nevertheless important,” she said, alleging a “general lack of judgement.”
She concluded, “Based on my continued concern I will not be able to make a motion to overturn the superintendent’s recommendation.”
BOE member Beth Behrend also expressed her unwillingness to support Chmiel’s bid for renewal. “I’ve heard many great things tonight that we want for our kids and the aspiration and hope that we needed after COVID,” she said. “I have also listened over the past 18 months to a disturbing number of complaints, investigations, and concerns about violations of procedures, rules and laws, all involving Mr. Chmiel in some portion.
“We have spent many hours as a Board on this. As a representative of parents in this district I count upon a principal who is responsible for 1,500 children and 200 staff to have excellent judgment, to be a true team player, to have the trust of staff, to be accountable to the rules necessary to ensure the safe and smooth functioning of the school. School spirit and communication are not enough for me as a fiduciary for our children, and, unfortunately, I cannot make a motion.”
Durbin, in making her motion for a Board vote, first criticized the “flawed process” and the “circus” that had been brought to the district but continued, “I make a motion to overturn the superintendent’s recommendation. I’m making the motion because I’ve heard enough to concern me.”
Following Christopher’s second and the roll call vote, Board President Dafna Kendal announced that the BOE would send Chmiel official notice of his nonrenewal in the next three days, but whether there will be future measures by Chmiel and his lawyers or whether a parent group will mount a campaign to recall Board members is not known.