The West Windsor Plainsboro district has an updated mission statement—one that almost didn’t pass until a last minute amendment at the Jan. 24 school board meeting.

The final vote to approve the mission statement and three key strategic goals was 6-1-1, with Carol Herts voting no and Isaac Cheng abstaining. Member Louisa Ho was absent, and an earlier vote to postpone action was narrowly defeated 5-3 after Cheng changed his mind, setting the course for a final vote.

Strategic Planning consultant Judy Wilson unveiled the mission statement and three strategic goals, which were based on feedback from 6,500 surveys, a public meeting, and numerous focus groups.

The strategic planning process, launched last year to develop focused goals for the district for the next three to five years, culminated in a two-day workshop, where 28 “Core Team” members gathered to craft the new mission statement and the three goals.

The contents of the mission statement and goals were met with lengthy discussion by board members. Coupled with the semiannual Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying presentation, the meeting lasted nearly four hours. A presentation for next year’s budget was postponed until the Feb. 21 meeting.

The statement approved by the board states: “Building upon our tradition of excellence, the mission of the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District is to empower all learners to thoughtfully contribute to a diverse and changing world with confidence, strength of character and love of learning.”

The following were the three goals approved:

Goal 1: Understanding that all students have diverse needs, backgrounds and approaches to learning, we will integrate tools and structures to appropriately challenge and enable students to realize their full potential.

Goal 2: Embracing a rapidly changing world, we will empower learners to assume active roles in their communities, to face and engage global challenges and to contribute proactively toward a more peaceful, just, inclusive and secure world.

Goal 3: Recognizing that children need to balance physical, emotional and academic needs, we will maintain a supportive culture and build structures for the health, safety and well-being of the Whole Child.

More than three dozen members of the community and school district were in attendance.

“If you look at board meeting minutes from 2015 and 2016, there were discussions: what’s next for WW-P?” Wilson said.

The last strategic planning process was in 2003, and Wilson explained a “highly inclusive” process was established to review the data and “then forge goals and action plans.” The goals are about teaching and learning, and the district’s facilities and finances were not within the process’ purview.

The board was being presented with the goals, and Wilson said the actual action plans to achieve them will be created over the next several months by action plan committees assigned to each goal.

The 8-10 person committees will consist of district personnel and perhaps even experts from outside the district. Wilson said the action plans will include specifics such as schedules, resource and budget allocations.

Board member Carol Herts called the strategic goals ‘poorly written’ and asked why the word ‘empower’ was included multiple times.

Wilson added that better communication from the district was a recurring theme in the gathered data, and she said every goal’s action plan will contain a communication element.

Before proceeding with developing action plans, the district sought board approval of the strategic goals developed by the core team, which will serve as guideposts.

“Quite a bit of wordsmithing was done,” Wilson said. “Each word and each phrase is chosen for a purpose.”

After Wilson’s presentation, Herts called the strategic goals “poorly written” and asked why the word “empower” was included multiple times.

The previous mission statement contained the phrase “valuing our tradition of excellence,” and Herts said, “Without ‘excellence’ I don’t think it’s acceptable that it’s so watered down.”

In response, Wilson pointed out the phrase is included in a prefatory paragraph preceding the actual strategic goals, and she also emphasized that research for socio-emotional learning in the context of a Whole Child approach is very current, with much research being produced within the past 10 years.

Board Vice President Michele Kaish, who was part of the core team that crafted the mission statement and goals before the board, said she “respectfully disagreed” with Herts’ comments.

“Removal of the word excellence does not mean we don’t want to be excellent,” Kaish said. “We wanted our mission statement to be aspirational and forward thinking.”

Added Kaish: “One of the things we talked about is sharing the joy of love of learning. We didn’t want our mission statement to be about SAT scores. There are many definitions of success.”

Board President Anthony Fleres said, “The actual meat of the work, the devil in the details, is in the action plan.”

However, the board was just getting started. Once the board was due to vote on the strategic goals, Herts made a motion to postpone board action, which was seconded by Cheng.

Entering the third and final year of his current board term, Cheng read from a prepared statement and said he did not disagree with the stated goals, but he did question why they did not touch on concrete areas such as curriculum and instruction. In addition, he said the goals lacked “specific prioritization.”

“I don’t want to see this become a binder on a bookshelf,” Cheng said, adding that the text had many red flags which he recognized from reviewing strategic plans as a management consultant. “I would have liked to see more clarity and less jargon.”

Kaish said the intent was for the goals to be “bold and high level.”

“Maybe these goals sound lofty. We did that on purpose,” Kaish said. “We looked for overarching themes we kept seeing from the community.”

Board member Rachel Juliana asked Cheng what he envisioned would occur if the board postponed action until the February meeting.

“I don’t want any rewriting of this,” Juliana said. “We had a process, what I would not want to see is have it rewritten by one or two people.”

Cheng said it is not the job of the board to wordsmith, but perhaps the board could provide a “couple of guidelines.”

“First, each of the strategic goals needs to be better linked to the mission statement,” Cheng said. He also added the current text has “weighty sentences,” and he was concerned whether future boards would understand.

Fleres said the board’s current duty was to decide whether they valued the goals before them, and to vote yes or no.

‘In the last 10 years, I have never read the strategic goals, not to minimize their importance.’

Assistant Superintendent Gerard Dalton, who was a member of the core team, said he was unclear what the board was asking.

“I’m a little concerned going back to a room with 28 people, still unclear with what to do,” Dalton said.

Superintendent David Aderhold, also a member of the core team, said what was in front of the board is a “step one document,” and if it did not receive board approval the next step would be to reconvene the 28-member core team.

Developing an action plan following approval is “exactly what you’re asking for,” Aderhold said to Cheng.

Board members Herts and Taylor Zhong expressed separate concerns over the removal of the “tradition of excellence” phrase from the mission statement.

Zhong said that with the absence of “excellence” from the mission statement, “people might assume the district is moving away from this.”

Herts, Zhong, and Yingchao Zhang voted to delay action. While Cheng said he thought some of the language “could be cleaned up,” he voted alongside the other four board members to vote down the delay proposal.

However, Cheng made clear that he would not vote to approve the text, and it seemed the strategic plan was headed to 4-4 defeat.

Noting the core team’s efforts to come up with the text, Aderhold said the board should vote it down if there is dissatisfaction. He estimated the strategic plan would not come back until March because of impending budget work.

“The action team works from board-approved goals. If we need more time to work it out, then we need more time,” Aderhold said.

Herts made a motion to keep the current mission statement as is, but no one seconded the motion.

Zhong said he would support the text if the language about excellence was added back into the mission statement.

Not wanting to risk a non-approval, Kaish withdrew her first motion to vote on the text and made a new one to amend the mission statement.

The “building upon our tradition of excellence” language from the strategic goals prefatory statement was added to the beginning of the revised mission statement and then approved by the board.

After hours of debate, Fleres said, “In the last 10 years, I have never read the strategic goals, not to minimize their importance.”

Fleres also thanked HR director Alicia Boyko for 19 years of service, and he announced the planned retirement of longtime Assistant Superintendent of Finance Larry Shanok at the end of the school year.