Will the controversy surrounding the selection of Dr. Marcia Lyles as the next Jersey City superintendent of schools still resonate with voters heading to the polls in May 2013 for the mayor and council elections?
By that time, Lyles will be completing her first year on the job, and the rancor surrounding her selection may have receded into the background as more immediate issues take center stage in the campaign.
But it was confirmed last week that the reelection campaign of Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy has approached former superintendent Dr. Charles Epps to run on his slate as an at-large City Council candidate.
This suggests the Healy campaign believes voters will still be fired up about the school board’s selection of Lyles. Allegations that school board members were pressured to hire Lyles, and anger that the board did not include acting school superintendent Franklin Walker as a finalist, could damage the campaign of Healy’s opponent, Ward E Councilman Steven Fulop.
A Healy ally said that Epps ‘can win, especially in this atmosphere.’
Fulop’s candidates largely campaigned on the promise that Epps needed to be removed and replaced following a national candidate search. Last year the school board negotiated a separation agreement with Epps that paved the way for a national search for his replacement, culminating with the selection of Lyles.
The Epps factor
Last week several Healy allies confirmed that Epps has been approached to run for one of three at-large seats on Healy’s slate. Efforts to reach Epps for a comment were unsuccessful.
Epps was the superintendent of schools in Jersey City for 18 years and presided over a period of high dropout rates and low test scores in the district. Despite this, Epps continues to have many supporters among parents who believe he was unfairly blamed for some of the district’s problems and unfairly forced out as superintendent.
“[Epps] can win, especially in this atmosphere,” said one Healy ally last week, referring to the acrimony surrounding the superintendent search process. “He can do well in several parts of this city.”
“Epps is open to it. We’re talking to him,” confirmed another Healy ally. “He’d do very well in Society Hill.”
A spokesperson for Healy’s campaign declined to confirm whether Epps has been approached to run on the mayor’s ticket.
“We’re raising money, building a staff, and considering a council slate that will continue moving Jersey City forward,” said Joshua Henne. Healy’s full official slate might not be finalized and announced until after the New Year.
His inclusion as a council candidate next year could galvanize support for Healy’s slate.
“I think there are a lot of parents that would vote for him,” said parent Vanessa Symms. “I might vote for him. I feel more comfortable with him than Steve Fulop. So, yeah, I think that would be a good idea putting him on the ticket. And I campaign for people I like, too. I’d support Healy if he did that.”
A number of parents who supported Epps and Walker echoed this sentiment last week.
Superintendent issue ‘not going away’
Some longtime Fulop allies say they are reconsidering their support for his 2013 mayoral run in light of how the superintendent search process was handled by the school trustees he endorsed.
“I absolutely promise you this will still be an issue next year,” said Josephine Paige, a downtown resident who recently wrote an open letter to Fulop on why she has withdrawn her support from his campaign. “This issue is not going away. It is not dying. The actions taken by the board is not going away. He is going to lose other support because of this. I’m the one who has spoken out thus far. But as more information comes out there will be other people rethinking their support of Steve Fulop.”
Another Fulop supporter, who asked that his name not be used, also said he is “seriously reconsidering” his support of Fulop “in light of what has happened with the school board over the last two months.”
Lyles’ affiliation with the Broad Superintendents Academy, he said, “is not in the best interests of the Jersey City public schools,” and he believes that Fulop played a behind-the scenes role in her selection. The Broad Academy is funded by private backers who favor school choice options, including charter schools and vouchers. This affiliation with controversial school choice options has led critics of Broad Academy to question whether its graduates are firmly committed to public education. Such criticism has been leveled at Lyles, although at a public forum in Jersey City last month she described herself as a public school advocate.
Fulop has repeatedly denied that he lobbied for Lyles to get the superintendent job. And despite the loss of some political support, the mayoral contender is undeterred.
“Good government, which puts the residents first, is good politics and I wouldn’t change anything,” Fulop said. “I don’t base decisions on what is good for my election or what’s politically easy. If I was looking to my campaign, I would do what most other elected officials do, which is do nothing and hope for re-election. But I believe we can have an impact and the status quo is not acceptable. The [Board of Education] candidates said they would look for transformational change. They said they would do a national search. They are following through on what people elected them to do.”
He said he “admired” the board for “fighting for what’s right” and said Healy’s involvement in education at this time is little more than a political ploy for votes.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.