Jersey City Board of Education trustees heard a myriad of comments ranging from school funding to disapproval of state-mandated LGBTQ+ education during a roughly five-hour monthly meeting.
A group of Muslim and Coptic Christian parents holding signs that read “save our schools” spoke at the Jan. 30 meeting. They voiced concerns with the state-mandated LGBTQ+ curriculum signed into law last year, which requires middle school and high school students be taught about the political, economic, and social contributions of people with disabilities as well as the LGBTQ+ community starting this year.
“We respect, love, and tolerate everyone the same, as we are all the creation of God,” said Father Thomas Nashed a priest at St. George & St. Shenouda Coptic Orthodox Church in Jersey City. “By implementing this curriculum, you are breaking the First Amendment, as it will be forcing our children to learn something that is against our values, freedom, and faith. The schools have a duty to educate the children, not to sexualize them and force our kids to have sexual education by labeling everything to a sexual orientation, therefore stripping away their innocence …. Let’s be clear, it is the parents’ right and only the parents’ right to teach their own children such matters.”
Board members noted that because the curriculum is state-mandated, they don’t have the power to change it. They also noted that the curriculum promotes tolerance and is focused on LGBTQ+ people’s contributions in history such as Alan Turing, the father of the modern-day computer, who helped break the code used by the Nazi’s during World War II.
“Seventy-five years after prisoners were freed from Auschwitz, I find it very difficult to sit here and listen to so many people come and speak out against the LGBTQ community,” said Trustee Gerald Lyons who is gay. “I hope that many of those who spoke tonight will conduct more research into this state law, as many of your comments indicated a need for more research.”
He also read the First Amendment out loud during the meeting, noting that it was not being violated by the new instruction.
“These curricula provide exposure to the differences in our community,” he said. “They can address prejudice that leads to hateful actions by allowing students to learn that although our neighbors may have differences from us, we are all more alike than different.”
More funding needed
Another group of parents and community leaders from Jersey City Together spoke about the district’s underfunding as it faces millions in state aid funding cuts over the next seven years.
Under a revised school funding formula, the state will eliminate $175 million originally meant for the Jersey City school district over the next seven years.
The group advocated for the need for more funding, at least $50 million, to offset the cuts the state is imposing and provide for professionals to continue to help the children of the district.
Jyl Josephson, a parent and a member of Jersey City Together, said her son has never experienced a fully-funded school district.
“This is investing in our children,” Josephson said. “You are our trustees. We trust you to invest in our children and to lead.”
Josephson continued, “We need $17 million to re-create the over 200 positions that were lost in recent years, which include over 160 teachers, janitorial staff, academic coaches, reading recovery specialists, administrators, counselors and crisis intervention teachers, teacher aides, and teacher assistants, including special education teachers, and district level facilities personnel, including janitorial and security staff.”
The group also advocated for $1 million to create a pilot for licensed clinical social workers and psychologists to work with the schools most impacted by gun violence as well as other issues associated with socioeconomic inequities.
Josephson also advocated for $2 million to $4 million to hire more staff as well as $2 million to $5 million for professional development and development of the curriculum.
The majority of funds, an estimated $25 million to $30 million, could also be used to cover the budget’s “inflationary costs, salary increases, and maintain the needed 2 percent fund reserve.”
The advocates acknowledged that this would probably mean a tax increase this year, but said it could be mitigated through shared services with the city and an increased ratable base, among other measures.
Trustee Mussab Ali, who sits on the board’s finance committee, said, “It’s a miracle that our schools are still functioning,” noting that going to teachers and administrators to tell them to do more with less is “an impossible task.”
Board President Lorenzo Richardson proposed joint public meetings between city and school officials to discuss school funding issues in the form of a joint school board and city council meeting.
Richardson also said that he would raise taxes but only if all other options had been exhausted.