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Parent Discontent Fuels Spirited School-Board Races in Princeton

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PRINCETON, N.J.--Caroline Angrisani can recall a time in this small university town when school-board elections generated barely a ripple of interest.

"I remember it being almost a joke,'' said Ms. Angrisani, a mother and volunteer in the local schools. "People would say, 'Oh, you're voting in elections for the school board and budget. What a waste of time!'''

But that is not the case anymore.

This week, eight candidates are competing for just three slots on the local school board, a larger field than most residents can remember. And many of the candidates are being backed by newly active parent groups that have strong--and substantive--criticisms of their children's schooling.

Representing a wide range of interests, the parent groups are complaining about the treatment of minority students and about the need to protect academic and enrichment programs from looming budget cuts. They have complaints about the way the district spends its money and about perceived weaknesses in its mathematics curriculum.

In many ways, observers inside and outside the school system say, the debates taking place here this election season are reflective of conversations going on nationally. Panels and educators at the national level are debating the need to strengthen the school curriculum, while voters in many elections are expressing discontent with their political and institutional leadership. And the economic recession is putting new financial pressures on communities across the country.

But because this is Princeton, a community that has derived its identity from one of the nation's oldest and most respected universities, the volume and intensity of the battle has been turned up a notch.

"It refocuses the issue,'' said Joel Cooper, the president of the Princeton Regional School Board. "Because of the kind of town we're in, people are more likely to channel anxiety about taxes and government into educational issues.''

Strong Track Record

Princeton has long had a national reputation for the high quality of its public-school system. Last year, 88 percent of its graduates went on to postsecondary schools--many of them Ivy League institutions. About a fifth of the senior class at the district's only high school have been recognized this year by the National Merit Scholar program. Only a tiny handful of students drop out each year.

One day last week, for example, the Princeton High School choir was practicing its German pronunciation of works by Mozart, in preparation for a trip to Europe. At the middle school, the math team returned from having won a state championship. Trophies in display cases at both schools attested to their success in sports.

To a large degree, parents have always been an active part of the school system here. Parent groups have formed over the years to raise money for extracurricular activities and to heighten awareness of disability issues. Parents also organized at one point to examine the "total school quality'' of the system--an effort, in part, to examine the competitive pressures felt by average-achieving students.

"A lot of parents tend to be extremely ambitious,'' explained Connie Ban, a mother of three and former president of the parent-teacher organization at one of three elementary schools in the district. "They are sometimes very concerned when their children are very small about them getting into Harvard.''

In the past, though, most parent groups have been advocates for the schools, said William Johnson, the principal of John Witherspoon Middle School.

"When tight budgets came in the old days, they would get together to find ways to raise money,'' said Mr. Johnson of his 16-year experience in the job.

This year, however, parent groups are being much more critical of the school system and much more aggressive in flexing their political muscle. And they are waging educational debates on a level observers say is more sophisticated than in most communities around the country.

"When you're talking about how are our kids in the middle doing and how are our kids on the bottom doing, that is a very sophisticated discussion,'' said Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford University professor who has studied school boards nationally.

'Not Going To Take It'

To some in this new crop of parent groups, Princeton schools' visible successes are as much a product of local demographics and affluence as they are a tribute to the educational system.

"Parents know that children's needs are not being met, and they're fed up with the school system not being held accountable for this,'' said Dee Bucciarelli, whose husband, Todd Tieger, is running for the school board as a member of one of the oldest parent organizations, the Robeson Group.

"Finally,'' she said, "it just got to a level where people said they're not going to take it anymore.''

Named after the black singer and actor Paul Robeson, one of Princeton's most famous native sons, the group was formed three years ago around the candidacy of the school board's current vice president, Gerald Groves. The primary concern of the group has been the lagging academic achievement of the district's minority pupils, who represent about 27 percent of a total enrollment of 2,500.

A study conducted by the school system and encouraged by the group indicated that African-American and Hispanic students were disproportionately enrolled in special-education and remedial programs. While black students make up about 13.5 percent of enrollment, for example, they account for more than 31 percent of all special-education students.

Moreover, both black and Hispanic students are underrepresented in advanced classes and in high-school performing-arts programs.

"This demonstrates there are some real problems in the school system's ability to educate the student body at large,'' said Dr. Groves, a psychiatrist. "We spend the lion's share of the budget on the high school, which has a national reputation, when a significant proportion of the student body gets to high school unable to participate in the diversity of courses offered because they are struggling with math and English.''

After Dr. Groves won a seat on the school board, the Robeson Group successfully fielded two more candidates for the board. This year, the group, which has about 40 members, is running two additional candidates, including Mr. Tieger.

"Maybe that's what made other people feel that if one group could do it, they could, too,'' said Rosalind Frisch, a member of the Robeson Group and former member of the school board.

Administrative Cuts Urged

Among the other groups is the Guild for the Preservation of the Tradition of Excellence in Academics and the Performing Arts. This organization was formed because of concern about school spending and administrative costs.

"Some of the cuts made really do have a detrimental effect on children, yet we don't see serious administrative cuts being made,'' said Sharon Muzyk, one of two school-board candidates nominated by the group.

In particular, Ms. Muzyk cited the district's failure to fund additional aides for special-education students, despite the opening next year of a new elementary school. But district officials contend that, despite the impending school opening, the ratio of students to aides will remain the same.

The group has complained that textbooks and art supplies are in short supply. It also contends that some of the program cuts made last year, such as the elimination of 5th-grade foreign-language classes, are uncalled for when administrators' and teachers' salaries and benefits continue to rise. Members of the group note, for example, that the superintendent's contract includes use of a car.

Concern over perceived weaknesses in the district's mathematics curriculum led earlier this year to the formation of Princeton Parents for Curriculum Reform.

"The curriculum starts very slowly so, really, [elementary-school students] learn very little,'' said Chiara Nappi, a local parent and a theoretical physicist. "By the time our children get to 8th grade, they are two years behind everybody else in the world.''

Ms. Nappi's letter to a local newspaper helped launch the group, which is made up largely of professionals in mathematics and science.

The group is also working with the district on a previously scheduled revision of the mathematics curriculum. And one of its members is also a school-board candidate.

Ms. Nappi blames the lack of a cohesive curriculum in the schools for disparities in achievement beween rich and poor students in the district. While some parents can compensate for any deficiencies in curriculum by tutoring their children, others may not be able to provide extra help, she argued.

"Princeton schools are very good in the sense that they offer children ample opportunities, but you have to be able to grasp those opportunities,'' she added.

'Need To Do Better'

School officials say much of the criticism coming from the parent groups is unwarranted.

"We're saying we have great kids; I believe we have excellent staff,'' said Carol B. Choye, the district's superintendent of six years. "We're also saying we need to do better.''

While district officials acknowledge that some minority students may be struggling in school, they contend they are taking steps to respond to the problem.

"We want everybody in a multicultural setting to be at the 99th percentile,'' Ms. Choye said.

Among those efforts, she explained, are three days of staff training in cross-cultural awareness, purchase of multiculturally oriented textbooks, ongoing studies to assess the progress of the district's minority students, and efforts to provide early music lessons for minority students and to strengthen linkages between home and school.

Part of the problem, said one school-board member, Corinne Kyle, may also be parents' misperceptions of how well their children are doing.

"A child who, in other school systems, would be a good, solid kid feels in Princeton he or she is not terribly successful,'' she said.

District officials also pointed out that, in response to parents' concerns about the teaching of mathematics, they have speeded up their review of the curriculum and expect to have a revised course of study in place by the start of the school year next fall.

On the issue of spending, school officials point out that the state "report card'' on the district, which came out last month, showed that the system spends a below-average proportion of its budget on central administration. In Princeton, there are 208 students per administrator, compared with the state average of 155.

To be sure, the district pays its teachers well. The average Princeton teacher with a master's degree earns $50,414 annually--roughly $14,000 more than the state average.

'Things Are Shrinking'

Much of the current scrutiny of school expenses stems from new financial pressures, some of which are common nationwide this year and some of which are unique to this area.

"It's easy when there's plenty of money around,'' said Linda Meisel, a mother of three and the director of a counseling program here. "How do you keep up morale when things are shrinking?''

Despite Princeton's reputation for affluence, there are some residents--particularly among the elderly and recent immigrants from Latin America--who are relatively poor. Some parent groups warn that the district's rising property-tax rates, combined with the economic recession, will drive many of those people from the community.

Last year, the district's $30-million budget proposal was defeated by the voters for the first time in 15 years. The budget finally approved was more than $600,000 less than the original proposal.

"People are losing their jobs and money is tight, and when people see their property taxes constantly rising they are saying, 'What is going on?''' said Wanda McEwen, who is running with Mr. Tieger on the Robeson Group's slate.

The problem is expected to worsen next year under a new school-finance formula in the state that is designed to equalize spending between rich and poor school districts. Under one part of the plan, the state's wealthiest districts, including Princeton, must assume the cost of their teachers' pensions by next year. Those costs, previously borne by the state, add up in Princeton's case to $2.5 million to $3 million a year.

The shift of pension payments to districts remains an extremely controversial subject in the nearby state capital of Trenton, however. The powerful New Jersey Education Association is expected to push hard in the new Republican-majority legislature to ensure that retirement costs continue to be a state responsibility.

A Matter of Trust

The financial situation has "worked to force down the ability of Princeton's school district to perform,'' said Ms. Kyle. "You get people who are very nervous about what they really value in education and whether that's going to continue to get funding.''

She noted that surrounding districts are also experiencing increasing interest in their school elections this year. In some communities, tax-revolt groups are forming to defeat district budgets. Princeton's proposed budget, in contrast, was expected to be approved by voters on April 7.

Mr. Cooper, who is retiring this year after 11 years on the school board, said he also sees in the current debate some of the anti-incumbent feelings that are manifesting themselves in elections around the country this spring.

"People are questioning institutions, governments, budgets,'' said Mr. Cooper, who is also chairman of the psychology department at Princeton University.

"I don't think the issues that separate the candidates are truly ideological,'' he said. "The major issue is the trust the candidates are willing to give to the administration.''

The debate in the election has become unusually bitter and has sometimes turned personal--a change that has been troubling for some in the community.

"We are supposed to be teaching our kids problem-solving skills, and this is not setting a very good example,'' said Ms. Meisel.

All sides of the debate, however, say they have children's needs--and the academic traditions that give this community its distinctive character--at heart.

Driving through downtown last week, for example, Ms. Choye pointed across Nassau Street to the main gate of Princeton University.

"All I want,'' she said, "is for all our kids to know they can cross that street and go through that gate and stay there.''

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