The Jersey City Board of Education appointed new leadership at its reorganization meeting Jan. 4, but held off on selecting an interim superintendent for the time being.
The board voted in Trustee Gerald Lyons as Board President, and following a motion to approve two vice presidents, appointed Trustee Gina Verdibello as Instructional Vice President and newly sworn in Trustee Natalia Ioffe as Non-Instructional Vice President.
When it came to the appointment of a superintendent to replace the recently-retired Superintendent Franklin Walker, the board held off on appointing Deputy Superintendent Dr. Norma Fernandez to an interim role.
The board also sworn in three newly elected members to the board, which include Ioffe, Younass Mohamad Barkouch and Paula Jones-Watson, who all ran together on the Education Matters slate in last year’s board elections.
New board leadership
The board named Lyons as the new Board President to succeed former President Mussab Ali, voting 6-3 to appoint him to the new position.
Ali was first elected in 2017 as the youngest person to ever serve on the board and later became president in 2021. He decided not to seek reelection due to health concerns, because he had undergone chemotherapy treatments for Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Lyons was an educator at the Hudson County Schools of Technology from 1987 to 2021, and has also taught at Hudson County Community College and Saint Peter’s University.
He has had a history of being on and off the Jersey City school board, where he was first appointed in 2012 to serve the remainder of the term of resigned board member Marvin Adames before being elected for a full three year term in 2014. He lost reelection in 2017, but was then appointed back to the board in 2018 to fill the unexpired term of Angel Valentin, who resigned for health reasons. He was then elected back for a full term in 2019.
After appointing Lyons, the board voted on a motion to create two vice presidential positions – one for instructional and non-instructional. Lyons noted that school districts such as Newark and Maplewood have done so, and that having an extra leadership role would help the board get work done.
“I think it’s a great way for us getting more experience as leadership,” said Lyons at the meeting.
Verdibello as instructional vice president returns to a similar position she held until last year. Trustee Noemi Velazquez had been nominated to the position before Verdibello, but did not get the votes to be appointed.
Ioffe was voted in as the non-instructional vice president, taking on a leadership role on her first day as a board member. Vice President Lekendrick Shaw was nominated to the position, but did not receive a vote after Ioffe was appointed.
No interim superintendent for time being
New Jersey’s second largest school district will continue without a superintendent for the time being. Superintendent Franklin Walker retired at the end of the year after serving the role since 2019.
Verdibello attempted to nominate Fernandez as interim superintendent for the remainder of Walker’s term. However, Lyons and Velazquez said they thought the nomination would be discussed in a closed session.
A few other trustees also had issues with how long an interim tenure would last, as Walker’s term was set to end in June of 2023.
“We’re essentially talking about two years for an interim superintendent,” said Trustee Alexander Hamilton. “I don’t know if that’s appropriate, because the word interim basically means you’re not setting a set time on something.”
Lyons noted how they would be essentially voting on a 18-month contract without any prior discussion. “How can we say we’re picking the person that’s best when we have not even discussed this?” he said.
The board ultimately voted to table the motion.
The new board and any potential superintendent will have to handle a number of pressing challenges for the Jersey City school district, starting with the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases over the past month.
The school district decided to move to virtual learning beginning on Jan. 3, citing a rise in COVID cases. The district has remained virtual since then.
The district must also face how to deal with potential solutions to the school district’s funding crisis, with up to $126 million potentially heading their way after the U.S. Department of Education ordered the state of New Jersey to return state funding to the district.