Princeton School Board Candidates 2014

Princeton School Board Candidates Answer League Questions

EDITOR'S NOTE: These are the verbatim responses of the candidates for the Princeton Board of Education to questions presented by The League of Women Voters of the Princeton Area in cooperation with The Princeton Packet. The candidates were allowed to vary the length of their answers to the three questions but were given a word limit for the total.

Candidates – Vote for three (three-year term)

Justin B. Doran - Institutional Equity Trader Royal Bank of Canada

Afsheen Shamsi (incumbent) - Non-Profit Consultant; Candidate: M.S. in Strategic Communications at Columbia University. Website:

Fern M. Spruill - Community volunteer, crossing guard, formerly Princeton University Housing Office. Website:

Connie Witter - Underwriter – As a mortgage underwriter working with first time homebuyers. I strive to encourage and support dreams of homeownership for the betterment of our communities.

Describe your personal experiences and involvement with public schools that qualify you as a school board member.

Mr Doran:

My wife and I are both products of public school primary & secondary education. Sara is a graduate of the Princeton Public School system. We have had 5 children in the system over the last 10 years and will be in PPS for another ten years. We have been active participants at both Johnson Park Elementary and John Witherspoon. Sara had been an engaged member of the JP PTO. I served for 4 years on the BOD of the Princeton Little League as part of a very “hands on” team that worked hard to effect change. I am excited for the opportunity to serve once again in a community that I have come to care very much about.

Ms Shamsi:

I have served on the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education since May 2011. As the current Chair of the board’s External Affairs Committee, I have led the development of the district’s communications plan and an update of its crisis communications plan. I also serve on the board’s Student Achievement and Personnel committees and served on the Facilities committee during its successful development and passage of a $10 million construction bond referendum project.

Ms. Spruill:

I am running for school board because I care about our students, schools and community. My goal is to foster a system that works for all our students. I served as vice-chair and chair of the district’s Minority Education Committee from 2007-2011, helping the school board and administration on issues that impact the educational experiences of minority students in our public schools.

Ms. Witter:

All three children that have attended the Princeton Public Schools. Within these past 18 years, I have become quite acquainted with the teaching curriculum, programs and youth-related activities. Like any parent, I have made sure that my children have taken part in so many of these opportunities. They have all attended college; one remains and my two eldest are currently pursing professional careers. Being a part of this School Board would allow me to give back to a community that has given my family and I so much.

List, in order of priority, the three most important challenges facing the Princeton Public Schools. How do you plan, in both the short and long term, to address them?

Mr. Doran:

1) Resources: Managing rising enrollment and ever increasing costs.

2) Space: Creatively using what we have with limited room for expansion.

These are the challenges that will face the newly elected BOE, Superintendent of Schools, faculty, students & parents in the coming years. We will need to collaborate, drawing on collective strengths, potentially employing asymmetric methods to solve the issues that confront us.

Ms. Shamsi:

Given the 2% cap on the increase of our tax levy and the rising healthcare and other costs each year, our district faces a fiscal cliff. Maintaining and enhancing the educational quality of our schools with shrinking resources is the district’s most significant challenge. The board and administration are working hard to ensure that we can continue to maintain small class sizes and all the excellent programs that our children enjoy today. Public-private partnerships to strengthen our schools need to be further explored and this is an area where I believe I would be an asset to the district’s work.

The other two issues are linked. There are increased pressures on students and faculty due to unfunded state mandates that are simultaneously changing standardized tests and linking those tests to teacher evaluations. In addition, fiscal limitations certainly put pressure on our board, administration and teachers. As a board member, it is important to be aware of the changing realities on the ground so as to institute policies to support students and faculty. As Chair of the External Affairs Committee, I ensure that the board is well-informed so that we are able to advocate for legislative changes.

Ms. Spruill:

The School District Budget - I would want to learn about the already existing budgetary priorities. I am very concerned about the severe financial constraints that our district faces, and I would work on the school board to develop and clarify short-term and long-term goals to best meet the needs of students, parents and professionals.

Electronic Access for All - I’m interested in Superintendent Stephen Cochrane’s goal of enhancing electronic access for our families who do not have computers or internet access in their homes. In addition to allowing older students the same access to their teachers’ websites, online resources that their more privileged peers have, all parents and guardians would have the tools they need to communicate and stay involved in their children’s’ school community. From my experience as a volunteer mentoring at-risk children, I know that parental involvement and school-home communication is crucial for a child to thrive. This is a project that has great potential to “level the playing field” for students and families.

Family Community and School Partnerships That Support Our Diverse Students’ Success - I would like to be a part in creating an all-inclusive environment in every school where every student feels valued and is taught respect for self and others and decision making skills. This would require promoting the needs of students from different backgrounds, such as African-American, Latino, LGBT, and special needs students. I would also build upon my experience in improving the schools’ relationships with the families of these students.

Ms. Witter:

First: Continuing to find and adopt great programs that will serve to inspire and empower our students to as successful as possible.

Second: Finding creative ways to cut down school cost. This could be achieved by reaching out to seeking out avenues to increased grant funding. One approach is create a committee designed to proactively reaching out to retired professionals and alumni who want to give back to the community.

Third: Developing a good relationship between the Board of Education and the PREA. If we remember who we are here for, listen to each others opinions and make decisions that are best for the students, teachers, and community we will be able to ensure that we are achieving maximum efficiency and productivity.

Working to turn these three challenges into three strengths will be a great starting point in the continuing quest to improve our town's school system as well as our community.

If you had the chance to undertake one new initiative to improve the Princeton Public Schools, what would it be?

Mr. Doran: The public education experience for our children involves three main components: Academics, Arts & Athletics. For many years the Academics & Arts have thrived, while Athletics has remained status quo. I would like to initiate a top-down review of the PPS athletic program. We need to be responsible stewards of the resources that are directed towards athletics, so that we can properly develop the talents of our student athletes and revitalize community spirit and support for our teams. The success of the 2014 Homecoming event this September signals that there is a community desire for there to be more resources directed to our athletic programs.

Ms. Shamsi:

Redefining success: After concluding his listening tour in our community, Superintendent Steve Cochrane worked with the board and administrators to develop this initiative for our schools. I have been honored and thrilled to be part of the planning for this effort. To me, one of the most important aspects of this initiative, and one I am most excited to work on, is to broaden the conventional definitions of academic success to include many more learning styles and interests – recognizing and valuing everyone's unique strengths and contributions. This would entail working towards differentiating instruction and ensuring that every child at our schools is known and appreciated. To me, the overarching goal should be ensuring that all of our children graduate feeling good about themselves and what they have achieved at our schools.

Ms. Spruill:

Students with socioeconomic privileges already thrive in Princeton. I believe our district needs to do more to support those students with challenges to find success. Examples of methods to achieve this goal are coaching, setting consistent and higher expectations for those students and communicating those expectations clearly, and expanding the district’s successful needs-based full-day preK program. Specifically, I believe our district does not serve well our students who speak Spanish fluently. We need to help them develop written literacy in their native language while doing a better job helping them learn English.

Ms. Witter:

T- Group/Sensitivity Training Programs for the members of the Board of Education and the PREA to create a cohesive environment that nurtures and supports our students. In these groups participants will learn about the way they communicate, through their interactions with each other. This feeback can be use for problem solving.

MISSION STATEMENT: The League of Women Voters®, a nonpartisan political organization, encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy.

To read the responses of candidates for other offices and to find links to debates, go to the LWV-Princeton Area website.

The Princeton Area League seeks new members (men and women) from Kendall Park, Kingston, Montgomery, Plainsboro, Princeton, Rocky Hill, South Brunswick and West Windsor. Click here to become a member.