Suzanne Mack, the Jersey City School Board president and the board’s longest-serving member, said recently that it is “premature” to talk about her likely departure from this body, even though she has stated both publicly and privately that she plans to resign this fall.
According to state law, the timing of Mack’s departure is crucial. Should she decide to resign this fall, the timing could determine whether voters get to choose her replacement.
If Mack resigns by Sept. 6, then Jersey City residents will have the opportunity to vote on her replacement in November. But if she leaves the board after this date, her replacement will be appointed by the remaining board members, as was the case last year when former trustee Marvin Adames resigned to accept a job promotion in Newark.
The timing of Mack’s resignation would also come just as the board is doing a performance review of Schools Superintendent Marcia Lyles, who was hired last September, and at a time when the board is negotiating a new contract with the teachers’ union.
November election sets stage
This year will be first time school board elections in Jersey City will take place in November rather than April. Turnout was notoriously low in spring, so in November 2012, Jersey City residents passed a non-binding referendum – initiated by then-City Councilman Steven Fulop – to move its school board elections to November.
Mack, who has been on the school board since 1996, was most recently reelected in April of 2011. Because of the change in the law, she said the length of her current term has been extended.
(Mack also ran in the November 2011 special election to fill an at-large seat on the City Council. She lost that election, however.)
“This is my sixth term on the board. Had the elections not been moved to November, I would be ending my term next April,” Mack said. “But because of the switch, they’ve extended our terms. So, my term now is not up until Dec. 31, 2014.”
According to the New Jersey School Boards Association, the deadline for candidates to file a petition to fill a school board vacancy created after June 4 is Sept. 6.
The added workload, she recently told the Reporter, will force her to resign from the school board, although she said she does not plan to do anything until after Labor Day, on Sept. 2.
Time is ticking
Thus, the timing is crucial in more ways than one.
According to the New Jersey School Boards Association, the deadline for candidates to file a petition to fill a school board vacancy created after June 4 is Sept. 6. This means that if Mack resigns after Labor Day, but before Sept. 6, interested candidates will have a very narrow window in which to file petitions to get on the November ballot. If she resigns after the Sept. 6 cutoff date, the remaining school board members would pick a replacement to serve out the remainder of her term.
Last year, when Marvin Adames left the Jersey City school board to become the municipal judge in Newark, the remaining school trustees solicited resumes from people who were interested in being appointed to his seat. Several candidates were interviewed and considered. Gerald Lyons was ultimately appointed to serve in Adames’ seat until the next school board election could be held.
But Mack’s possible departure recalls another more controversial resignation as well.
Former City Council President Mariano Vega resigned from the council in September 2010, more than a year after he was arrested in the notorious Jersey Sting/Operation Bid Rig II investigation. Prior to his resignation he had been under pressure to leave the council so that residents could select his replacement in a special election. Instead, Vega remained in his council seat until it was too late for a special election to be held.
The City Council majority, which was allied with then-Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy, eventually appointed Radames “Ray” Velazquez, another Healy ally, to Vega’s seat. At the time, many residents criticized Vega for staying on until it was too late for voters to pick his replacement
Now, some education activists fear history could repeat itself on the school board.
“I really respect [Mack’s] service. But I demanded her resignation when she decided to run for the council at-large seat in 2011,” said frequent school board critic and agitator Riaz Wahid. “If she had resigned at that point, we would have an elected member by now, rather an appointed member from the Jersey City's new [political] machine.”
Eight of the board’s nine members, including, were endorsed by Mayor Fulop and were elected with the help of his political machine. But Mack is regarded as one of the board’s most independent members whose votes do not adhere to a set political agenda. Whaid fears that if Mack resigns after the Sept. 6 cutoff, she could be replaced with a “rubber stamp” who will endorse the Fulop-backed board agenda without scrutiny.
“I am also worried about teachers’ contract,” Wahid added. Mack, he noted, “is one of the committee members representing the board [in contract negotiations].”
Teachers’ union contract also affected
The school board could indeed also lose Mack in the midst of contract negotiations with the Jersey City Education Association (JCEA), the union that represents more than 3,000 educators working in the public school system. As the longest-serving school board member, Mack has been through contract negotiations in the past. The remaining eight board members are in their first terms on the board and have not gone through a teacher contract negotiation in Jersey City.
The teachers’ current contract expires on Aug. 31. The JCEA and district have been in negotiations since late last year. The current contract is likely to expire before a new one is signed.
While details of the proposed contract are not known, the statewide trend is for longer school days, longer work weeks, and merit pay. It is possible that there could be significant pushback from the JCEA.
Union president Ron Greco last year refused to endorse and sign on to the Jersey City Public School District’s $40 million grant application for federal Race to the Top funding because it relied on merit pay and additional work hours from teachers. The grant application also stated that ineffective teachers would be removed from the classroom.
Since Race to the Top applicants get points for getting the support of teachers’ groups, Greco’s refusal to endorse the school district’s funding request hurt Jersey City’s changes of getting the $40 million grant.
“That grant would be our new contract,” Greco told his membership last year.
Should these issues arise again at the negotiating table, Mack’s experience could prove valuable to the process. Losing her could hinder or delay an agreement with the JCEA.
As for when she might make a possible exit from the board, Mack would only say that it will be after Labor Day.
“I have a few things that I’m trying to get done, one of which is Dr. Lyles’ evaluation and that’s not done yet,” said Mack. “So, I’m not going anywhere until that’s done. I’m definitely here for [the month of] August. And I’m probably here for September, but we’ll have to see.”
In the meantime, the school board race is moving ahead. In June, 15 candidates filed petitions for three school board seats that will each serve three-year terms. In addition, there will be a special election held for candidates who wish to serve out the remainder of Adames’ term.
Ballot positions were selected last week for these candidates. The election will be held as part of the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 5.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.