Michele Tuck-Ponder’s passion for civil service has been a lifelong affair.
Originally from the Bronx, Tuck-Ponder grew up in Teaneck, a small town in northern New Jersey. She received an education in one of the first school districts in the United States that bused students to different elementary schools for the sake of racial integration.
Through this initiative, Tuck-Ponder said, “I got to know a bunch of kids I would never get to know. That made a really big difference in my life.”
It was during her high school years, however, that Tuck-Ponder began her lifelong career of civil service. As a teenager, she was a Girl Scout, a student representative to the town council, and the president of her student council.
“My whole life has been service,” she told me. “That is what I do. I am a public servant.”
Tuck-Ponder received a B.S. in journalism from Northwestern University and a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. After working briefly for The Wall Street Journal and Architectural Record, Tuck-Ponder decided not to pursue a career in journalism. Nor did she use her law degree to pursue traditional civil or criminal legal work. Rather, she applied her legal skills to legislative work in local and federal government.
Tuck-Ponder began working in the U.S. House of Representatives for Representative Louis Stokes of Ohio. Shortly thereafter, she moved to the Senate, where she served as special projects assistant to New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg.
Shifting from federal to state politics, Tuck-Ponder served as assistant counsel to the governor of New Jersey from 1992 to 1993. After that, she worked as New Jersey deputy director for the Division on Women, as mayor of Princeton, and as a representative on the town council.
Tuck-Ponder also worked as executive director of the Women’s Fund of New Jersey, as manager of the University's Center for African American Studies, and as a pre-law adviser. In addition, for the past decade, Tuck-Ponder has maintained her own consulting firm, Ponder Solutions, for nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations.
As mayor of Princeton, Tuck-Ponder worked selflessly for the good of the community. Among other accomplishments, her administration laid the groundwork for the construction of a library, a municipal building, and a park.
Her success, she believes, lay within her ability to collaborate effectively.
“I can get along with anybody,” she remarked, “and I can collaborate and share power with anyone.”
During her tenure as mayor, Tuck-Ponder attempted to work across party lines for the good of the community.
“All the former mayors, Democrat and Republican, I invited them to a former mayor’s council, and every month, they would come in,” Tuck-Ponder said. “They were all very helpful and supportive to me, and continue to be, actually, to this day…. When you’re in a small town, a town like Princeton, partisanship means a lot less than it does on the national level.”
This year, Tuck-Ponder is returning to civil service in a bid for a seat on the Princeton school board, a career move that she described as inevitable.
“When I left office,” Tuck-Ponder said, “I knew I would be coming back.”
As a governing body of Princeton’s public school system, the school board oversees a budget that nears $100 million.
If elected, Tuck-Ponder hopes to confront systemic racism within the school district, issues related to the tax burden of Princeton residents, and challenges involving facilities.
“[I’m] really concerned about the systemic racism in our school district that hinders the advancement of our … students of color and students of lower socioeconomic status,” Tuck-Ponder said.
Part of the issue, she explained, is that Princeton’s public schools do a reasonably good job of hiring minority teachers and educators but are not as successful at retaining them.
Regarding the tax burden, Tuck-Ponder expressed concerns about the height of property taxes in a town of Princeton’s size. Tuck-Ponder also observed that new developments within the town will likely lead to an increase in the number of students within the Princeton public school system. She hopes to manage the increasing student population and maintain high qualities of education without raising property taxes.
Tuck-Ponder, who is running against five other candidates, hopes to win one of three vacant seats on the Princeton Board of Education. She will appear on the ballot on Nov. 7.