Black candidates suspect bias in PTA

Drama surrounded the 2020 PTA elections at Mary J. Donohoe Community School

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Some members of Mary J. Donohoe Community School's PTA have taken issue with recent elections.
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Mary J. Donohoe Community School
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Some members of Mary J. Donohoe Community School's PTA have taken issue with recent elections.
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Mary J. Donohoe Community School

Members of the Mary J. Donohoe (MJD) Community School Parent Teacher Association (PTA) feel they have been misled by the current administration in their attempts to run for leadership positions in the recent election. One member claims it is due to the color of their skin.

The current PTA administration defended the election, and denied allegations of misleading members of color. MJD is at 25 East 5th St. in Bayonne.

Feeling misled

In an interview with the Bayonne Community News, Valerie Ndiaye, a teacher and parent of a child at MJD, said it started two years ago. An active member of the PTA, Ndiaye said that she ran for a leadership position.

She asked to run and was given nomination paperwork to submit. The rules required Ndiaye to be nominated by another member for the position, and she had.

However, when she showed up to the next meeting, the PTA introduced the new elected leadership. The nomination paperwork was the ballot, she was told. She said that was suspicious, because there was never an announcement of who was running.

Accepting defeat, Ndiaye remained active in the PTA. In June of 2020, the PTA announced there would be another election. Ndiaye decided to run again.

Round two

This time, she got together with other parents of color because she felt like people of color were not being represented in PTA leadership positions. According to Ndiaye, currently there are no people of color in any leadership positions.

However, she said the PTA president Jennifer Urbanowicz told her they could not run because they were not current members.

After reaching out to the New Jersey PTA, Ndiaye learned this was not true. Upon presenting the information to the MJD PTA, the parents were allowed to run because the election was not until October, and they would be active members when school began in September.

Then Ndiaye took issue with the announcement for the election online. Originally, it was not indicated that the president was up for re-election. After Ndiaye challenged it, the Facebook post was reworded to note that the president position was on the ballot along with vice president, treasurer, corresponding secretary and responding secretary.

When researching bylaws to gain a better understanding of the election, Ndiaye said she reached out to the state PTA again. She learned that a committee could have been formed to run the election. There was no committee.

Ndiaye alleged that the PTA president, Urbanowicz, was running the election herself. Ndiaye took issue with this because Urbanowicz was running for re-election and therefore should not be able to run the election.

“The president was responsible for sending out the ballots,” Ndiaye said. “So how do I know that she made sure that members of color didn’t get a ballot? I don’t know that I have trust that she gave the chance to vote to everybody who wanted to vote.”

Urbanowicz vehemently denied these allegations, and said that the PTA vice president at the time was running the election.

Vote by Google?

In September, Ndiaye learned that the election would be conducted via a Google document. Three days later on Sept. 21, Ndiaye said she received an email from the PTA containing the ballot, and that’s when she learned she and the other members of color running had challengers. The only position without a challenger was the president.

“Of course, every member of color lost,” Ndiaye said, including herself. While she accepted her loss, she was skeptical about how the election was run.

Continuing her research of the bylaws, Ndiaye discovered that there had been only one vice president slot up for election. According to bylaws, there should have been a second vice president position that should have been up for election.

Ndiaye argued that the second vice president slot should be filled by the person with the second highest number of votes, which would be herself. But when she approached the PTA, she was told there would have to be a new election for the empty vice president position.

Taking issue with the way the election was held via Google document and the lack of voting for the second vice president slot, Ndiaye called for a new election. But the state said that the election had to be held only for the second vice president slot.

Another election

The second election was held in October. This time, it was done by the books with a representative from the state PTA present. While not required to be present, the state PTA representative ensured this election ran in accordance with the bylaws.

But when Ndiaye lost again, she felt there was something more to it. When asked if she felt there was an organized effort to keep members of color from being in PTA leadership positions, Ndiaye said there was.

“There was an overwhelming feeling the moment I entered the meeting that they had already voted before they even heard my speech,” Ndiaye said referring to the meeting for the second election.

While Ndiaye accepts her loss and understands that elections are popularity contests, she feels like she and the other parents of color weren’t given a fair chance. She said that it felt like the administration had already chosen who would fill the position before the election.

PTA President Jennifer Urbanowicz defended the election in an interview with the Bayonne Community News.

Changes due to COVID-19

Urbanowicz said the PTA held an election in the fall, postponed to September due to COVID-19 following permission by the state PTA.

“The school closed abruptly, and we needed to have an election,” Urbanowicz said. “And I didn’t want to see the PTA totally shut down.”

She said she and the PTA vice president at the time had both spoken to the state as to how to run the election amid the pandemic. Urbanowicz said the state was involved throughout the election process.

According to Urbanowicz, the election held in September was done using a ballot in Google Forms. She said that it was okay with the state and that it was on the state PTA’s website that elections could be held in this manner.

Members of the MJD PTA were made aware through a letter sent home, indicating that the election would occur through a Google Forms ballot, she said. The ballot was then emailed to current PTA members.

“We worked really hard and made it known to our families, whoever was a PTA member, that they could run for an office because we had seats that needed to be filled,” Urbanwicz said. “We also needed parents who were members to step forward and vote, because everybody’s voice needs to be heard.”

Urbanowicz said she was not in charge of the election. The vice president at the time ran the election and sent the emails, including election information and the ballot, according to Urbanowicz. She said that since she was on the ballot herself, she wasn’t allowed to run the election.

‘A misunderstanding’

When it came to the second vice president position, Urbanowicz said that there was a misinterpretation of the bylaws.

Urbanowicz said she was contacted by the state PTA, which informed her how to proceed. That led to the determination to hold a second election for the vacancy for the second vice president position.

That election was held in November, with state oversight. According to Urbanowicz, all required literature was distributed to PTA members indicating that there would be another election. According to the bylaws, a second vice president position needed to be filled.

The second election was held virtually through Google Meets. Urbanowicz said a representative from the state PTA was present during the video meeting.

In response to allegations that the PTA was, whether unintentionally or not, misleading members of color on election procedures, Urbanowicz said she was appalled and offended.

“That is not how we conduct the PTA at all or the school as a whole itself,” Urbanowicz said. “We work with all our families. We are very open to all families and their children and what we provide. So that’s ludicrous.”

She continued: “[The election] was a fair playing field. The parents that came forward that wanted to run for these offices that were vacant, I welcomed them to run. I thank them for coming forward because like I said, with the past board members now leaving, I had to fill those seats. If they didn’t get filled there would not be a PTA, and I didn’t want to see that happen.”

Concluded Ndiaye, “I just want things to be fair, and I want people who want to be a part of something to be a part of it.”

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.