Decision to not renew Frank Chmiel holds after heated Donaldson hearing

June, 2023
Jessica ChenHangyeol CheongDaniel Guo

On May 15 at 6:00 p.m., the Board of Education held an over five-hour-long Donaldson hearing per the request of former PHS Principal Frank Chmiel, resulting in an 8–2 Board of Education vote to uphold Superintendent Carol Kelley’s recommendation for nonrenewal. This marked the first time that Chmiel appeared in front of Board members to present his case as well as the first time the Board was able to officially weigh in on the situation.

Chmiel requested the Donaldson hearing on April 28. A Donaldson hearing is a right in New Jersey for nontenured staff members who are not renewed or terminated, allowing them to request an appearance before board of education members to offer reemployment or reject the recommendation for nonrenewal. However, while the word “hearing” is in its name, the proceeding is informal, and no parties are placed under oath. According to NJ law, when a Donaldson hearing is requested, it must take place within 30 days after the employee receives the Statement of Reasons listing the reasons for nonrenewal.

On the day of the meeting, over 200 PPS parents, students, and staff filed into the PMS cafeteria, filling the 160 seats and leaving many standing against the walls. Many sitting in the front waved blue flags and held signs such as “Chmiel is the real deal.” Another 50 parents sat in the PMS library due to a lack of seating. Over 1,000 more tuned into the YouTube live stream.

“I came here today because it’s good to show support for the principal. I think it means a lot that a lot of people turned up. [It] shows that they are behind him and that he made the effort to bring the community and the school together,” said Matthew Chao ’25.

Like the previous two board meetings regarding Chmiel’s dismissal, the hearing began with one hour of public comment where parents and students voiced their opinions on the matter at hand. Each person was allotted two minutes to speak; a wide range of views were voiced, especially those in support of Chmiel. However, the strained atmosphere erupted after audience members booed and heckled Ellie Bernstein ’23, a student who criticized Chmiel for being unforthcoming with his vaccination status, leading to a 15-minute recess.

“What was confirmed to us at the meeting was that [Chmiel] told staff they could take their masks off and a staff member said, ‘Well, I mean, we are all vaccinated, right?’ He just ignored the question. So essentially, he lied by omission,” Bernstein said.

Being one of the few that publicly spoke out against Chmiel at the hearing, Bernstein described her close relationships with her teachers, resulting in her motivation to be vocal. Despite expecting pushback, she was “disgusted” and described the parents’ behavior as “extremely inappropriate.”

“I definitely wouldn’t consider [the hearing] my business at all if [Chmiel] hadn’t been dishonest to staff about it,” said Bernstein. “Since I’ve been at PHS, my teachers have probably been my favorite part of the school. Coming from an educator family, I understood a lot of teachers are required to cooperate, and that made me really angry … For anyone who was actually at that board meeting that was not comfortable … I just figured that I was probably the only one who’s gonna do it because his supporters can be so scary, and I was willing to deal with backlash.”

Although the members of the board were aware of the unpopularity of their decision to fire Chmiel was to many PHS parents, they were surprised and concerned by the disrespectful and discouraging behavior that was demonstrated during the hearing.

“Our students [were] being booed and silenced and that stuff just isn’t supposed to happen. It was really disappointing and it also just sort of knocks you off your game a little bit when you’re trying to follow the rules for this strange proceeding,” said Jean Durbin, one of two board members who voted to overturn Chmiel’s nonrenewal.

At 7:24 p.m., following public comment, Kelley began listing her reasons for Chmiel’s nonrenewal as per the official Statement of Reasons. Her statement consisted of Chmiel allegedly lying about his vaccination status, failing to lock down the school for an intruder, failing to communicate in a timely manner, failing to acknowledge the needs of certain struggling students, and in general, noting the alarming number of “Rice Notices,” which informs the employee if their employment will be discussed. She also stated that, in regard to Chmiel’s leadership abilities, the staff held a vote of no confidence, meaning that the majority of staff voted that they did not support Chmiel.

This claim of an informal vote was then refuted by Matthew Wilkinson, a PHS Physical Education teacher. According to him, the vote was not official or legitimate, and also ended up being inconclusive.

“The poll was over a Zoom, and that’s different from other types of situations because you have a buffer between how you are voting or not voting,” said Wilkinson. “So we cast our informal ballot, and then the union came back to us and said it was inconclusive. The poll did not give the union a strong point for him or against him. So this bit about a vote is inaccurate.”

The Princeton Regional Education Association, a prominent teachers’ union in the district, declined to comment.

The first part of Chmiel’s response was the presentation of witness testimonies. A variety of people were asked to speak by Chmiel, including Neveah Williams ’23, who was personally helped by him in her classes.

“I feel like Mr. Chmiel deserves the support from everybody … and I just felt like I had to show up,” said Williams. “One day, right before winter break, I was telling him to take a break for mental health, and he was just saying, ‘PHS is the priority, and you don’t really get time off.’ So I feel like that’s like a side of him that I see.”

With the hearing going beyond the scheduled time, ending at 11:36 p.m, tensions increased not only among students and parents, but also among teachers and staff.

“If you come to this community, you value education… and [we’re] here tonight because [we] value someone that puts our children above all other things,” said Wilkinson. “I look at the seniors and what [they] have gone through, and [they’re] so close to the finish line, and yet another horrific thing is thrown at them.”

Furthermore, in a confusing juxtaposition, Chmiel wholeheartedly denied many of Kelley’s reasons in his response.

“I will bring [the audience] through several parts of the statement and show how this document is inaccurate and wrong,” said Chmiel at the beginning of his rebuttal. “I will explain some of the wrong ways I have been treated by Valley Road. Actions that were not just unethical, but illegal.”

While Chmiel did not deny being unvaccinated in 2021, he stated that he was unvaccinated due to health reasons and was sitting over six feet away from staff when he took his mask off. Moreover, he claimed the intruder incident did not take over three hours to resolve, but was controlled in a matter of minutes. Chmiel further asserted that during time-sensitive instances where he needed administrative support, Kelley was unresponsive. Additionally, Kelley told him to always be on the lookout for new jobs because “she too was always looking for new jobs.”

After Chmiel’s statement, which lasted over an hour and 15 minutes, each board member was given the opportunity to initiate a motion to reinstate Chmiel as the principal of PHS. After Mara Franceschi and Beth Behrend both declined to make a motion, Durbin started a motion to the excitement of many spectators.

“My reason for voting was a pure protest vote. I was protesting an incredibly flawed process and an impossible situation for all of us to be in,” said Durbin. “I had heard a couple of things from two independent witnesses that gave me pause, and I had no way to investigate that. No way to ask a question, no way to cross examine, no way to verify. … It was certainly not a real conversation. And it’s really something almost impossible to be placed in for any of the parties participating.”

Looking back, Bernstein describes this time as difficult, but wants to put this behind as soon as possible to move forward. She feels that expressing strong opinions are necessary in a democracy, but wants to focus on change and improvement to have a more productive and compelling argument, specifically focusing on discernment.

“I’ve definitely held beliefs throughout my life that I’ve completely turned around through the research and listening, and the realization that I was wrong was humbling,” said Bernstein. “I want people to learn to think critically and take into account that what makes them feel good isn’t always what’s right. And to challenge themselves or to challenge perceptions.”

Even after the failure to overturn Kelley’s decision, the board hopes to reunite the divided Princeton community once again.

“I feel like most of the people in my world have moved on. I just think a lot of people understand that employment decisions are complex, that people were operating with good intent, and that non-renewal was a normal thing. It happens all the time,” Durbin said.