Unlike similar debates in the past, candidates in his year’s school board election agreed more than they disagreed at the Sept. 27 forum hosted by Parents Take Action at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
The candidates representing the two most contentious factions seemed to want to put their best foot forward and avoid the bitterness that has sometimes plagued public school board meetings and campaigns in the past.
Five candidates are running for three-year terms on the nine-member board.
Incumbents Amy DeGise, Gerald Lyons, and Lorenzo Richardson are running for reelection as a team, and have been endorsed by the Jersey City Education Association, the teachers’ union. Yousef Saleh and Matthew Schapiro, backed by Parents for Progress, are running against the incumbents.
Two candidates are running to fill the one year remaining on the term of John Reichart, who resigned in January. Mussab Ali, who is running for the one-year term, has also been endorsed by the union. David Miranda is running against Ali.
The JCEA has historically opposed the appointment and reappointment of Dr. Marcia Lyles as the superintendent as well as policies associated with her.
Parents for Progress-backed candidates took control of the board in 2012 and successfully appointed Lyles, and later, managed to renew her contract, despite strong opposition from the union.
But over the last two years, union-supported candidates have retaken control of the board, and are raising questions about some of the policies that were implemented.
One of the key elements of this election is a call for a forensic audit that would probe some of the board’s spending practices, in particular review of Source for Teachers, a firm hired to provide the district with substitute teachers.
The firm overspent its $4 million contract by $1 million. The company was also the focus of union wrath, partly because it replaced a previous system that steered substitute teaching assignments to teachers in the district, providing these teachers with additional stipends beyond their regular salaries.
Under pressure from a board dominated by union-backed trustees, the district returned to an in-house hiring system for substitutes. The only candidate to say he opposed the forensic audit was Schapiro, who said this implied that there was wrongdoing.
Schapiro said this implication puts at risk the district’s recent success at regaining local control of all aspects of the district. The state took over control and set up a monitor over the operations in the late 1980s citing numerous problems that included cronyism and other questionable practices.
“With local control, we need to avoid are self inflicted wounds,” Schapiro said. “Someone might think a forensic audit is a good thing, but such an audit is required when there is evidence of fraud. That simply doesn’t exist, and we know that because we’ve gotten local control back. A forensic audit would be an extraordinary mistake because it would tell everyone that there is something wrong going on in the district, which is not actually happening. If you want to threaten local control, that’s how you would do it. This would make the district look worse than it is. We do not have a problem.”
“With local control, we need to avoid are self inflicted wounds.” – Matt Schapiro
Union vs. anti-union
In a second debate hosted by the Hamilton Park Association on Oct. 5, candidates took a harsher stance, with Schapiro, Miranda, and Saleh blasting the incumbents DeGise, Lyons, Richardson, and their running mate Ali for – they said — working on behalf of the unions and not the school district.
“We’re anti special interest,” Miranda said. “We believe in children first. While we support the teachers, even some of them are leaving because of the union.”
Miranda accused Ali of joining “the dark side” because the union also endorsed Ali this year.
“Nothing in my campaign is different this time than when I ran last year,” Ali said, referring to when he ran against union-supported candidates in 2016.
The anti-union candidates throughout the Oct. 5 debate blasted the incumbents, blaming them for siding with the teachers’ union over the best interests of the students.
“The JCEA is a power broker, and these candidates will never vote against the JCEA,” Schapiro said.
Ali, however, said, special interests would not influence his vote if elected, and that he is an advocate for the children.
Who are these candidates
Schapiro unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the board in 2016. He is a communication consultant and has three children in the public schools. In the past, he has been a fierce supporter of Lyles and her policies, and has credited her with helping the district regain local control and provide good management practices to the school district.
Schapiro is running with Miranda, who is an army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan and currently works in corporate risk management.
Miranda, however, supports the forensic audit.
“This is what I do for a living,” he said.
Miranda is a graduate of County Prep, New Jersey City University, and is currently seeking a master’s degree at Seton Hall University.
Also running with this team is Saleh, a graduate of McNair Academic High School, and Rutgers University. He also attended Rutgers’ law school.
DeGise is the daughter of Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise. She was appointed to the board in January to fill a vacant seat. She is a teacher at County Prep High School.
Ali, who ran unsuccessfully for the board in 2016, is also a McNair Academic graduate. He is a Truman Scholar who attends Rutgers University
Lyons, who is currently finishing his first full three year term and who served on the board as an appointment for a year in 2011, is a teacher at Hudson County Schools of Technology.
Richardson, an accountant, has been an outspoken critic of board policies, even before he successfully won election to the board three years ago. He is credited with raising the alarm about lead contamination in some of the schools drinking fountains and says he is an advocate for transparency and informing the public about issues.
For the most part, all the candidates agreed on improving the schools meal programs, developing more parent teacher organizations in all the schools, and providing better communication with parents. But on some issues such as spending and charter schools, the candidates seemed to have different, if not totally opposing views.
What about the school budget
Lyons said he has led the charge against overspending, especially in regards to hiring of consultants.
He was particularly critical of Source for Teachers and the $1 million overspent.
“I have no problem with professional development,” he said. “But we can’t continue to spend.”
The state cut aid to Jersey City by $8.5 million this year, and he said resources should be used to save programs like sports.
DeGise said she is very passionate about professional development, but believed that the district should do so in-house, using teachers who have expertise to instruct other teachers. She was also critical of professional development companies that treat all schools as the same, when local teachers have a better handle on the needs of individual schools.
She said the district should also look toward grants to provide for new programs, and to urge state and city officials to fight for more state aid in the future.
“We have a target on our backs because we are Jersey City,” she said. “We need to be frugal.”
Richardson said the district spent $7 million on professional development.
“We already know we do not need to spend a lot on professional development,” he said. “We’re supposed to be doing this in-house. We have people who have expertise.”
Saleh said he used to be a grant writer for the city of Jersey City.
“I’ve also done grant writing for not for profits,” he said. He is also critical of hiring consultants the district may not need. “We need to see where we’re spending money and if there is any redundancy in the budget.”
Schapiro said he approved of cutting the budget but none of the cuts should come out of classroom funds.
“We should look at management and efficiency, and find ways to be frugal.”
Miranda gave a slightly different perspective.
“I was a consultant,” he said. “I understand when a city or school district spends money. But we have to hold these people accountable. There are a lot of firms, not just one.”
While some of the funds come from state and federal grants, he said, these could come to an end.
“We have to look at why we are hiring these, and tie this to a measure of performance.”
What does it mean to have local control?
After 30 years under state supervision, local officials will regain control of the school district this year.
DeGise said this gives the district the opportunity to develop a new model, designed to provide updated educational programs such STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and that the district should be working more closely with local unions, city and state officials and the community to discuss what should be taught in the schools.
Richardson said local control allows the district to become more flexible and for the district to continue to focus on student achievement. The change will also allow the district to control costs better.
“This means being creative in developing programs,” he said.
Saleh said the district must also look to implement practical programs such as those dealing with business, stocks and bonds, and financial literacy, since many of the graduates will eventually moved onto college where they will be confronted by real life fiscal challenges.
Schapiro said the district lost control to the state because Jersey City was failing its students.
“While there were pockets of excellence, overall students were not learning,” he said. “We started to get back local control in 2008, but once Lyles came up, we saw a dramatic improvement.”
He said graduation rates were up and so were other key elements that allowed the state to return control to Jersey City.
Miranda agreed saying this posed a challenge for the district in the future.
“The state training wheels are off,” he said. “We need to see what the next three years will look like and how to street in the right direction.”
Lyons was more cautious.
“We don’t know how this will impact us or our budget,” he said. “We do not know when the state steps away, how this will affect funding. While the state pointed to problems with buildings, it also refused to fund these repairs.”
Charter schools and vouchers
Under the new education administration in Washington D.C., school vouchers appear to be on the agenda as well as possible support for expanding charter schools.
Richardson said he is opposed to both, saying character schools mostly service the elite, despite the claim they admit people on a lottery system, and funding these schools drains resources needed in the public schools.
“I don’t see this as a benefit,” he said.
Saleh, sounding conflicted, said he doesn’t believe the voucher system will fix the system, but believes parents should have choice whether to send their kids to charter or private schools.
“As a member of the board, I think I would see what works in the charter schools and do those things in public schools that will allow students to thrive and grow,” he said.
Schapiro said, “Heck no, that’s privatization and it’s detrimental to public schools. Funding flows out of public school and into private schools.”
But Schapiro seemed to take a slightly different position when asked the same question by the Hamilton Park Association on Oct. 6.
“The Board of Education represents all schools, even charters,” he said.
Miranda said he attended County Prep, a school of choice, but believes that if the district makes public schools as good as charters, people have no reason to send their children to charter schools. But like Schapiro his position seemed to shift slight when he stated on Oct. 5 that he supported giving parents’ choice.
Lyons opposes both vouchers and charter schools.
“Of our $677 million budget, $70 million goes to charter schools,” he said. “We’re still responsible for providing special education programs and other support.”
DeGise said the district needs to be vigilant against the expansion of charter schools.
“We need to put everything into our public school system,” she said. “Charter schools do not respect teachers or students. They have few people of color, special needs children or those poor children who qualify for free lunch programs. They say they have a lottery system, but it’s not a real lottery.”
She said public officials do not have control over charter school calendars, or how they teach.
“They take public money but are not accountable,” she said.
Ali at the Hamilton Park debate on Oc. 6 said voters vote for board members who oversee public school, and this provides accountability. But he said charter schools are not as open to public scrutiny.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.