Carlos Flores and his wife Edith, both teacher’s aides in the West New York school system, began their walk down Tyler Place near Town Hall on Monday night. They brought their children Melissa, 12, and Carlos, 9. With district maps and lists of all of the town’s residents, they went door to door to try to change the town’s school board from appointed by the mayor to elected by the people.
Many residents weren’t home, and many refused to come to the door. Flores and his family spent around 10 minutes speaking with those who did come to the door in an attempt to explain why they felt that board members should be elected.
“Children’s education should be in the hands of the parents,” Edith Flores said to a woman in Spanish. “We know what’s best for our own community.”
She explained that a June redistricting decision had moved Carlos out of the elementary school he attended last year, which happened to be the same one she taught at, and into one further away from where the family lives. Redistricting decisions are made by the Board of Education.
“It’s the right of the people to choose who makes the decisions for their children.” – Carlos Flores
Of 12 districts in Hudson County, five have school boards that are appointed by the mayor. The rest hold board of education elections, either in April or November.
Hudson County is unusual in that 42 percent of its districts have appointed boards, whereas statewide, the number is only 8 percent. Out of 603 total districts, only 50 have school boards appointed by the mayor.
Flores feels strongly that the people who hire the teachers and make the decisions that affect children’s lives should be elected by the children’s community.
“We are tired,” Flores said. “The Board of Education has seven members, and five of them were chosen by the mayor, not elected by the people. Therefore, they have the control.”
The board has seen much political wrangling over the years, especially since some of the board members were allied with new Mayor Felix Roque when he took office last year, and others were allied with his opponent, former Mayor Sal Vega.
This is not the first time community members have petitioned to make this change. The attempt was made years ago when current Schools Superintendent John Fauta was a teacher, but the effort was unsuccessful, Fauta said.
While he declined to comment on his own preference, Fauta said, “We have a very good working relationship between the superintendents and the Board of Education and we keep the best interest of the children in mind.”
In order to change a district’s designation, residents must literally vote for the right to vote, which is why Flores has taken on the task to go door to door. If they can gather enough signatures on the petition, the measure will go to a public ballot.
Redistricting decisions like the one in West New York are made all of the time, and Edith Flores explained that she understands that, but she also feels that because the community had no part in choosing board members, the matter was too far out of her hands.
Both Carlos and Edith Flores feel that there may be alleged favoritism shown when the board hires new teachers, which is one of the reasons why they were out petitioning alone that evening.
“The others are afraid to speak out,” Carlos Flores said. “But I don’t care. This is not Cuba, and it’s my right to petition. And it’s the right of the people to choose who makes the decisions for their children.”
As for the alleged favoritism, “Everything is done by the book,” Fauta said.
Board with a past
Part of Flores’ misgivings with an appointed board stem from the recent controversy that began when Mayor Felix Roque was arrested in May by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for allegedly hacking into a political opponent’s website. Roque has not resigned.
The town has become divided politically, and police have been called to various heated meetings and confrontations between Roque’s allies and his opponents, one of whom has gone on record saying he wants to replace him as mayor.
Some residents and officials have felt that lobbying and campaigning has appeared to trump proper governance. But the drama with the board preceded that of the mayor.
When Roque took office in May 2011, he replaced two members of the board who had been appointed at the last minute by his predecessor, technically in violation of state law. He instead installed Adrienne Kole-Sires (the wife of Rep. Albio Sires) who became board president and Vilma Reyes who became vice president.
Roque also was able to replace Cosmo Cirillo, a close ally of former Mayor Sal Vega, because Cirillo had a municipal court job in West New York that conflicted with his membership on the board, according to state law.
In May 2012, Roque made the decision to expand the board from five to seven members by appointing Angela Duvall and Nasrin Alam.
There were 36 residents on Tyler Place, according to Flores’ town census. By 6 p.m. on Monday – an hour after he had begun – he and his family had collected only six signatures. Admittedly, he has a long way to go.
“This is good news for the politicians,” he said about the low number of signatures. “But I am used to working, and it’s worth it, because in my opinion, it’s time for change.”
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org