Budgets and spending, teacher shortages and test scores were the topics at hand during the Jersey City school board debate, where nearly all of the candidates seeking one of the three seats on the board this year took part.
Two slates of three people and one independent participated in the debate. The first slate, “Education Matters”, includes Trustee Noemi Velazquez, Afaf Muhammad, a Hudson County Democratic committeewoman and former independent candidate, and Christopher Tisdale, an educator. All three are backed by the Jersey City Education Association union.
The second slate, “Change for Children”, includes Trustee Alexander Hamilton, Doris “Toni” Ervin, a Hudson County Community College professor and former candidate, and Kenny Reyes, a former City Council candidate who works in the recruiting industry. The slate has received financial backing from real estate developers in recent years.
Isnel Sanon, who runs a tax service firm and was formerly with the NAACP, was the only independent that participated in the debate, with Ahsan Nawaz, a real estate agent at Weichert, not appearing that night.
The debate was hosted by Hudson Media Group and moderated by John Heinis of Hudson County View.
Budgets and spending
The first topic that Heinis raised was the new school budget adopted earlier this year, totaling $973 million and coming with a $1,611 average tax increase per household. He asked the candidates what they would do to “hold the line on taxes” if they get elected.
Tisdale said “no one wants to see their taxes increase” and that he would ensure that “wasteful spending” is eliminated and that money is appropriated “for the things that they need to be appropriated for.” Muhammad also said that the board should put a hold on the budget to evaluate how it’s spent and where the money can be reallocated.
Velazquez, who voted for the new budget, said that while she was “very disheartened” to vote for the budget, she said that she voted “on the side of the students, not on the side of the developers, not on the side of anybody else,” and argued that the board needs to consider the new curriculum and the resources needed to teach it.
“We also take into consideration the reduction that the state put upon us this year,” she said. “We did not have anyone, anyone from the city, any [of] the county or any other office help us regain any of that back.”
Sanon said that he would spend time working with the superintendent’s office to review policies and work with the purchasing department to make sure the money “is spent exactly as it should,” as well as monitoring what the district pays for equipment.
Ervin called the new budget “exuberant” and said that they board should start by looking at what their spending plan would be ”on different initiatives that are being offered from the schools, seeing what is working and what is not working.”
Hamilton said that he voted against the budget because he doesn’t believe in the tax increases imposed. He proposed hiring a budget officer for the school district, and that they stop the “tax shell game” between them and the state, county and city.
“If that means paying somebody $150,000, $175,000 a year to be qualified for the position, that’s fine if they find $20-30-40 million in waste,” said Hamilton about the budget officer. “That’s what we need to do first, clean up our house.”
Reyes said that the budget problem was the increases over the years, and that they should ensure that “every single dollar is accounted for correctly, not figuratively.”
“It’s not something where ‘Hey, give me the money’ and then there’s no plan,” he said. “We’re going to enact a specific plan in place to then ensure that those dollars are being allocated accordingly. Most importantly, the public should know where those dollars are being spent.”
A bit of sparring took place over their stances on the budget spending, with Reyes alleging that literature from the “Education Matters” slate had accused his slate of being against school funding, which he disputed. He said they’re “fully for funding 100 percent of the schools”, and that they’re against “irresponsible fiscal responsibility.”
Tisdale argued the literature was not about the “Change for Children” slate being against school funding, but their backing by for-profit companies that are against funding schools (he then mentioned the LeFrak Organization later in the debate, who have financially backed the “Change for Children” slate before).
Hamilton alleged the school board knew about getting additional funding assistance before the new budget was adopted, such as a recent $89 million in state funding, but still raised taxes.
Velazquez claimed she’s never seen Ervin or Reyes in the budget meetings, to which Reyes replied that one doesn’t have to be in-person to watch the process, mentioning that they can be watched online, such as on Facebook.
Teacher shortages and testing scores
Heinis also referred to the nationwide teacher shortage affecting many schools across the country, and asked the candidates how they would attract more teachers to Jersey City.
Sanon said the school board should start by renovating schools, such as classrooms and teacher lounges, as well as supporting teachers by letting them know “that we [are] here for them.”
“We’re gonna answer their calls, whether it’s [a] problem with parents, student and so on, I’m going to be here for them,” he said. “Whatever that needs, it’s gonna happen.”
Ervin said that after the budget is under control, he and his running mates would “take care of the things we need to take care of”, which she said would help attract teachers, get help from colleges that have alternate route programs for teacher assistants interested in teaching, and make salaries competitive.
Hamilton also mentioned salaries, arguing that they’re “low-balling” their teachers and that they should increase the base pay, and create infrastructure environments that are also conducive to teaching. Reyes also agreed and said that they should have “great” livable wages for entry level teachers and improve infrastructure.
“I wouldn’t want to, if I was a teacher, walk into a classroom and I don’t have any heating, I don’t have any ventilation specifically, it’s too hot, it’s too cold, the leaky pipe specifically,” said Reyes. “So that’s something that we have to address as well.”
Muhammad said that the board should look into substitute teachers and aides that are qualified to be in a classroom by themselves. Tisdale said that attracting teachers requires having “a valued field that people see as something that they want to do.” Velazquez said she agreed with having state-of-the art rooms.
“Definitely reaching in now to the teachers that we have and placing them into their own classrooms and giving them responsibility for their own selves and with the children, I think they have a lot of experience being a substitute for many years with a master’s degree in teaching,” said Muhammad.
Heinis pointed to the decrease in test scores, which has occurred nationwide as well, and asked the candidates on how they would bring them back up to pre-COVID pandemic levels.
Reyes said the focus should be on working closely with the faculty and Superintendent Dr. Norma Fernandez and her team to help teachers get students back up. Ervin said teachers should be surveyed as to what their needs are, and to have parents involved in their children’s education.
Hamilton said they should figure out how to schedule their time better, saying they have a number of morning and after school programs and that “a little bit more” learning and development should be worked in them.
“How do we better instill in those children at that age…learning skills during that time?” he said. “We have to now make up for nearly a year of not being in class, that’s very, very important.”
Muhammad said exams should be given as classwork to reduce anxiety. Tisdale said that the district needs to find alternative methods of measuring student ability and accomplishments. Velazquez said they need a budget like the one voted on to fund individualized instructions that will “make every child successful.”
Sanon said that Reyes and Tisdale “got it right”, and that he himself wants to go to teachers and find out “exactly what they need, how can we get them overboard,” as well as advocating against having CBG stores near schools.
Heinis asked if the candidates support having an appointed school board rather than the elected board, an idea that was supported by Mayor Steven Fulop and would’ve been up for a referendum vote in 2020, but was dropped in the midst of the pandemic.
Nearly all of the candidates present were strongly against the idea, with Reyes saying that challenging a democratic process is a bad idea, and Tisdale saying that an appointed school board “is nothing more than a group of people who are carrying out the mayor’s bidding.”
The only candidate who didn’t offer a definite answer was Muhammad, seemingly joking at first that she would support an appointed board if they appointed her, but then said that she would have to “really look at the process of how that is being done.”
“I would definitely have to look at the process and the agenda behind the appointments of the school board members, if that was to come down to it,” she said. “However, I think that the voice of the people is very powerful, and I think that not enough people are voting on the school board elections.”