You know 2018 might be a tough year for the Jersey City Board of Education when the first 20 minutes of their first meeting are consumed with arguing over which edition of Robert’s Rules of Order they should follow.
In what should have been a straightforward reorganization meeting on Jan. 9, the board – split politically 5 to 4 against Superintendent Dr. Marcia Lyles – postponed more items on the agenda than they actually passed, managing to somehow swear in newly-elected board members before engaging in combat over electing a new president and vice president.
Sudhan Thomas was named president and Lorenzo Richardson was named vice president in a 5 to 4 party line vote, after which nearly every item on the routine agenda was excruciatingly examined and put off to the Jan. 15 caucus meeting so that new members might get up to speed.
“I want us to leave our differences behind,” Thomas said “We are not going to agree on everything but we can move along with what we can.”
He said in the past the board has not focused enough on students, something he hopes to change as board president.
He said the school district faces serious issues in the future, in particular funding. The school district is underfunded by $100 million with $60 million more going to charter schools.
“Last year we had a deficit of $23 million and the state cut aid by $8 million,” he said, believing that the board should brace for additional cuts in the future.
Conflict from the start
The two factions on the board can generally be described as those who support School Superintendent Dr. Marcia Lyles or those that oppose her. Dr. Lyles attended the meeting but participated little, except to issue brief answers to clarify certain questions.
The Anti-Lyles faction includes Thomas, Richardson, Mussab Ali, Marilyn Roman, and Angel Valentin.
Those who appear to be pro-Lyles to some degree include Vidya Gangadin, Amy DeGise, Pastor Luis F. Fernandez, and Matthew Schapiro.
In his first remarks as president Thomas urged unity, saying the focus of his tenure as president would be on students rather than bureaucracy.
Nevertheless, the extremely long meeting was a fight over the nuts and bolts of reorganization, including what constitutes a legal publication for publishing legal notices, and whether the board should also consider on-line publications as well.
Underlying the conflict, however, are some serious questions about past practices, especially concerning awarding professional service contracts and the way the board budget itemized legal contracts rather than creating a single legal account. Some services were itemized by department, while others were lumped into insurance line items, making it difficult to get a full accounting of just how much the district spends for attorneys.
Under new leadership, the board is expected to authorize a comprehensive forensic audit of the school district’s finances. This is an area of conflict, since some of those who won seats this year opposed the audit on the grounds that it implied some kind of wrongdoing where none may exist.
Forming rigid political lines
Flush with continued if marginal control of the board going into the New Year, the anti-Lyles faction appears to want to examine the rules by which the board operates to determine if the other faction can use these to their own advantage in future conflicts.
In the past, an interpretation of Robert’s Rules allowed the pro-Lyles trustees to retain leadership rules on the board on what some see as a misreading of the rules by the board attorney. Some believe the attorney sided with the pro-Lyles faction.
At the last meeting in December, the board voted not to renew the attorney’s contract, bringing on a new firm the anti-Lyles faction believes will be more objective.
If the first meeting of the year is any indication of the future, 2018 will likely see constant moves and counter moves by both sides, jockeying for dominance or seeking to keep from losing too much ground until the November school board election can shift the balance of power again.
A lot of issues
Many of the anti-Lyles trustees were backed by the teachers union over the last several years. Lyles has become the focus of conflict partly because she is seen by some trustees as acting too independent of the board, and for steering contracts to particular vendors for such services – in particular a vendor that supplied substitute teachers to the district.
Lyles brought in a firm in order to oversee assignments of substitute teachers, which eliminated perks that unionized teachers previously received. In the past, teachers filled in as substitutes to supplement their regular pay.
The firm overspent its $4 million contract by $2 million, which gave the board the excuse not to renew its contract, and to return to an in-house system.
Lyles was appointed as superintendent five years ago when the board was controlled by progressives, but over the last five years, the progressives lost ground when three chose not to run for re-election last year. Despite this, the progressives or pro-Lyle trustees still control four of the nine seats although DeGise is seen less dogmatic than those pro-Lyles trustees.
Another area of conflict is ongoing negociations for a new teacher’s union contract.
Board members who are teachers or have close relatives employed as teachers in the district are not allowed to take part in negotiations under strict new regulations adopted by the state two years ago.
Legal questions still remain as to whether or not trustees supported for election by unions can vote on the contract when it is finally hammered out. Lyles said the negotiating committee has met with the union scores of times, but the contract still remains unresolved.
Some trustees fear an impasse will lead to a strike.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.