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Princeton schools superintendent resigns after tumultuous tenure

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Board of Education votes on Kelley's resignation at Monday's meeting.
Charlie Roth / The Daily Princetonian

Dr. Carol Kelley resigned from her position as Superintendent of Princeton Public Schools on Friday after two years on the job. She will take an immediate paid leave of absence until her resignation takes effect on Sept. 1, 2024.

Kelley announced her resignation in an email to staff, writing in part: “This week, after much consideration, I made the difficult decision to resign as Superintendent of Princeton Public Schools. This decision has not come easy, but for personal and professional reasons, I must take some time to reset and recenter myself, so I can later return to public education and continue to positively impact students.”

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The decision comes months after Kelley dismissed then-Principal of Princeton High School Frank Chmiel ’98, leading to student walkouts, protests, and a special Donaldson hearing, an informal public hearing where the school board can override a dismissal. Chmiel is currently in the process of appealing his dismissal and has filed a tort claims notice against 11 individuals including Kelley and the Board of Education as an entity, his attorney David Schroth confirmed to The Daily Princetonian on Monday. 

Parents also complained about a consultant that Kelley hired to review the math curriculum who had a record of being critical of tracking in math and the emphasis on calculus, which some parents saw as “leveling down.” Parents also criticized a new strategic plan that called for “equal outcomes.”

There was further outcry after staffing issues at a new after-school program. Kelley told parents she could only call into a Zoom meeting organized to address it because she was driving to a ferry for a retreat to Cape Cod, M.A., as Planet Princeton reported

In March of this year, Princeton High School (PHS) students and parents circulated a petition citing frustration with Kelley’s “lack of transparency, accountability and respect.” As of Oct. 30, the petition had 2,230 signatures. 

During a special meeting on Monday, the Board of Education voted 7–1 to uphold her resignation. As the lone “no” vote, School Board member Michele Tuck-Ponder said “the most important responsibility of a Board of Education is to manage, support and protect its chief executive.”

“We’re in this position today because of how this responsibility was managed, or mismanaged by this board from the outset,” Tuck-Ponder added. “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 action.”

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At the same meeting, the Board voted on Kelley’s leave of absence, in which Tuck-Ponder was also the lone “no” vote. The Board also unanimously appointed Rebecca Gold to acting superintendent, with Tuck-Ponder abstaining. Dafna Kendal, the president of the Board, told the ‘Prince’ that Gold is “a short-term solution until we can find someone who can do it for the next nine or ten months.”

“[Gold] is our interim [Human Resources] assistant superintendent, and so we just wanted someone in that [Superintendent] position,” Kendal said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ “We need someone who can sign the checks.”

Kendal explained that the Board cannot implement a full-time replacement for Kelley until her term ends on Sept. 1, 2024, and the Board wants “things to calm down a bit before we begin to search for a permanent superintendent.”

There were questions among members of the Princeton community about whether Kelley resigned or was forced to resign. There are also questions surrounding why Kelley is receiving the rest of her reportedly $244,800 salary despite the resignation. 

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Jim Wolf, a Princeton resident who self-reportedly served on a school board for seven years, was one of those who raised questions.

“My assumption is, she definitely did not resign,” Wolf said during the Princeton Board of Education Special Meeting on Oct. 30. 

“If she resigned on her own will, her contract would have not paid out the full amount to Aug. 31, 2024. Her contract is for three years,” he added. “The county superintendent would have never approved the contract that would pay out a superintendent that resigned on her own free will.”

“​​Let me be clear here: if she resigned there is no payout. On the one hand, if you fired her, you have to pay out the contract in full,” Wolf continued. “Which one is it? The nice platitudes are part of the settlement. The million dollar question is: why was she fired?”

Others in the meeting also questioned why Kelley was getting paid leave. Pamela Strum, a Princeton resident at the meeting, told the Board that she was “baffled” by the decision to approve paid leave.

“[Kelley’s] worked for two years and she gets a 10 month paid leave. A full year’s salary. That’s outrageous,” Strum said.

Kendal declined to comment to the ‘Prince’ on these comments.

Still, students at the high school say they haven’t been affected yet by Kelley’s resignation.

“The actual experience of students hasn't been impacted,” PHS senior Peter Eaton told the ‘Prince.’ He noted that students don’t interact much with the superintendent. “Right now, it is not as much of a controversy.”

Eaton said that the controversy is much less heated than during the time of Chmiel’s dismissal. 

Eaton is the son of Beth Behrend, who serves as a member of the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education and was the Board's past president, including when Chmiel was hired. She notably voted against a recent motion to reverse Chmiel's dismissal. 

“Right now, it’s not really as much of a catastrophe as some people take it out to be. Last spring, it was a big thing because obviously, a lot of students were upset but I think many parents were actually more upset than the students themselves,” he said. 

Eaton says his main takeaway from this experience is “how easy it is for issues like this to be blown out of proportion.”

Kendal declined to comment further to the ‘Prince’ on Kelley’s resignation, instead pointing to the Board’s statement sent to parents after her resignation was announced.

“We are thankful to Dr. Kelley for her contributions to the Princeton Public Schools. She joined us at a time when we were just emerging from the darkest days of the pandemic,” the statement read. 

The statement continued, “Dr. Kelley leaves the district with a more effective and efficient administrative structure, exceptional personnel hires, and a data-driven strategic plan that will further support our staff’s ability to provide the necessary conditions for all students to achieve their potential.”

Yan Zhen Zhu is a News contributor for the ‘Prince.’

Charlie Roth is a head Data editor and a senior News writer for the 'Prince.'

Please send any corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

Editor's Note: This piece has been updated to include that Eaton is the son of a Princeton School Board member. It has also been updated to accurately reflect parents’ communication with The Tower on Chmiel’s dismissal. The 'Prince' regrets this omission.

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