This story has been updated
Police removed several members of the public from the City Hall council chambers Wednesday night as tempers flared during a nearly six-hour Jersey City council meeting. The governing body voted 7-1-1 on a controversial resolution, which could determine how the Board of Education is composed in the future.
The adopted resolution places a referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot asking voters to decide if school board trustees should continue to be elected by the people, or appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council.
If the people decide to have an appointed board, the current board trustees would be required to leave office on June 30, 2021, and a newly appointed board would take office on July 1, 2021.
Of the more than 600 school boards across the state, only 14 have appointed members.
In a press release issued by Mayor Fulop several days before the council vote, he cited several issues with the elected board. They include a low retention rate, as five board members resigned in the last few years; the two indictments of Thomas, who was also charged in December with accepting bribes while in office; and controversial comments made by a board member which some city officials, including Mayor Fulop, have called anti-Semitic.
“There is no question that the Jersey City school system has been in chaos,” Fulop said in the release. “We are asking the voters to hold myself and the City Council directly responsible for the schools, but also in fairness, to give us the tools to make decisions that will fix the schools. Today, we are blamed for the schools, but we don’t have the ability to make any changes, as that only rests with the Board of Education. If given the chance, we will restore the schools so that our public school system will work better for students, parents, teachers, and taxpayers.”
State operated district
For almost 30 years, the city school system was run by the state. In 1989, the state Department of Education established a state-operated school district for Jersey City, and appointed a state district superintendent in charge of operations with an appointed advisory board of education.
After the district satisfied an extensive set of performance standards, the Department of Education returned the district to local school board control in the areas of governance and finance on April 17, 2008. The members had been elected during school elections held in April. In November of 2008, Jersey City residents voted to become a Type II school district, whose members are elected.
In 2017, Jersey City regained full local control of the district.
The majority of the roughly 65 public speakers at the council meeting opposed the resolution, urging the council not to move forward with the measure. They charged that the resolution was undemocratic, gave one person too much power, and was unfair to the new school district leaders who have not yet been given the opportunity to try and fix the district’s many issues, including a budget gap which will widen as state aid continues to be cut over the next several years.
“The idea did not come from the public, the public that you were elected to serve,” said teacher and union representative Colleen Kelleher. “This is the crux of my issue with this resolution.”
Several members of the public also questioned the timing of the resolution, noting that so far there had been no public meeting to discuss it, and that it seemed rushed.
City employee Sabrina Harrold said the city has to give the new school board a chance, noting it is now under new leadership with President Lorenzo Richardson, Superintendent Franklin Walker, and newly elected trustees.
“They are more than qualified, probably more qualified than anybody that will come before you guys to be appointed,” Harrold said. “Why just now was this idea brought to the table? It’s not fair.”
“If [Mayor Steven] Fulop appoints this board, I promise you, there is going to be a riot in Jersey City, because we are tired of it,” said Jeanne Daly.
Some members of the public questioned the mayor’s record of past appointments.
Resident Daryn Martin referred to the mayor’s appointment of former Gov. Jim McGreevey to the Jersey City Employment and Training Program (JCETP), who was later forced out by Fulop allies on the program’s board and replaced with Thomas.
“Did that turn out well? No,” Martin said, citing Thomas’s recent indictment on charges of embezzling $45,000 from the JCETP.
“How would being appointed to a no-pay job by a politician make board members less political?,” asked teacher Jackie Shannon.
JCEA president Ron Greco, was the first of several people removed from the meeting by police at the direction of the council president for speaking out of turn.
Greco shouted during the council vote taking the podium after Councilman Robinson called out the JCEA for supporting Thomas’ re-election.
“Mayor Fulop caused all this!” said Greco. “The white man who won’t let Franklin Walker have a chance! You’re all rubber stamps! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!”
Councilman Richard Boggiano voted against the resolution. Councilman Rolando Lovarro abstained.
In a follow-up interview, Mayor Steven Fulop supported the council’s decision and stated should the voters decide to have an appointed board, the move would “only be temporary.”
According to state law, if the referendum were to be included on the Nov. 3 ballot, the city would not be permitted to vote on the issue again for another four years.
“We don’t see this as a permanent solution,” said Fulop. “We just want the opportunity to fix it and then we’ll return it to an elected board but we want to be able to go in, look at the budget and move the board of education and the city forward.”
He said over the next several months his administration plans to work with the council and the public to outline a criteria for the appointed board and their qualifications and an agenda timeline of benchmarks for the board to achieve.
Fulop repeated that the whole point of an appointed board would allow the mayor and council to be held accountable for the school district as many members of the public already hold them accountable even though under the board’s current form the city government has no say in.
“We get blamed for it now even with no ability to effectually change it,” said Fulop.
As for his past appointments, Fulop noted that yes Thomas had been an appointment “but that he was also elected,” noting that after he was removed from his appointed role he was still able to hold his elected office.
“Look the board of education members have an entire year to act responsibly and demonstrate that they can solve the problem,” said Fulop “And if they show that they are willing to make tough decisions and solve the problems then we could always pull back the referendum. If they don’t then the public has the right to choose… They’ve been put on notice…”
He also said that despite the public criticism at the council meeting that the city stabilized taxes fixed the police and fire departments and “I think that if given the opportunity to we could fix the schools.”
For updates on this and other stories check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @Hudson_Reporter. Marilyn Baer can be reached at email@example.com.