When Jersey City voters go to the polls to select four candidates for school board on Tuesday, Nov. 5, the election will be marked by several “firsts.”
It will be the first school board election to be held since residents expressed support, through a non-binding referendum that passed last fall, for such races to be held in November, instead of April, when school board elections were held in the past. It will be the first school board election to be held since Dr. Marcia Lyles, the superintendent of schools, was hired in September 2012. And it will be the first school board election since Steven Fulop—who engineered three consecutive winning board of education slates in 2010, 2011, and 2012—was elected mayor in May, a development that could affect the outcome of this year’s race.
Twelve candidates are competing for three school board seats. The three top vote getters competing for these seats will each serve a full three-year term on the board.
The candidates running for a three-year term include Ellen Simon, Micheline Amy, Jessica Daye, current trustee Gerald Lyons, Lorenzo Richardson, Gina Verdibello,
Denise Davis, Telissa Dowling, Carol Gabriel, Susan Harbace, DeJon Morris, and Kevaan Walton.
In addition to these 12 candidates, two other candidates are competing in a special election to serve out the remainder of the school board seat vacated last year by former school trustee Marvin Adames. Adames resigned from the school board in August 2012 to become the municipal judge in Newark. The candidates running to serve out the remainder of his term, which expires Dec. 31, 2014, are current school board trustees Carol Lester and Angel Valentin.
Residents who go to the polls on Nov. 5 will be able to pick up to three candidates running for a full term, and one of the two candidates running in the special election for Adames’ seat.
Davis, Dowling, Gabriel, Harbace, Morris, and Walton are running independently on their own. Simon, Amy, Daye, and Lester are running together on the “Candidates for Excellence” slate, which has been endorsed by Mayor Fulop. Lyons, Richardson, Verdibello, and Valentin are running together on a separate rival slate.
Josephine Paige, a thirteenth candidate who earlier this year filed petitions to run for a three-year term on the school board, last week announced on Facebook that she was dropping out of the race. Paige was originally part of the Lyons-Richardson-Valentin ticket. After she ended her campaign, the trio announced that Verdibello would be joining their slate in place of Paige.
In the first of two stories on the upcoming Board of Education election, the Reporter interviewed five of the candidates from the two slates regarding their plans for the district, if elected.
Other candidates will be interviewed next week.
Communication, improved opportunities, funding among top priorities
The upcoming election will take place against the backdrop of the past 18 months, during which a divided school board held a contentious search for a new superintendent and allegations were raised that Fulop, who was a city councilman at the time, was manipulating board decisions by operating through key school trustees.
While all the candidates are campaigning on programs and policies they’d like to see implemented to improve learning, graduation rates, and the long-term success of public school students, Lyles’ stewardship of the district and Fulop’s influence are still major concerns looming in this election.
If elected, the Candidates for Excellence slate is likely to play a supportive role to Lyles and, some believe, will question her decisions less than some of the other candidates running. In contrast, the Lyons-Richardson-Verdibello-Valentin ticket is much more likely to question and challenge decisions being made by the district’s central office.
“We want all schools to get the proper resources,” said Richardson. “We want to make sure that funds are being expended properly. We know that hiring several people at over $100,000 in the central office is not the answer to solving problems in the classroom. That problem is going to be solved by putting resources in the classroom. One of my priorities will be looking at the allocation of the school budget to determine where some of the problems are.”
Arguing that too little information is currently being shared with parents, and even some members of the board, Lyons said his priorities will be to improve “communication, transparency, and community involvement. This is what people have been coming to the board and begging for.”
He said the recent security assessment that was done by an outside contractor is an “example of what can happen when you don’t have communication, transparency, and community involvement.”
“I do think the district can do a better job of engaging parents,” agreed Simon, who is running on the competing slate. “The main focus of the board has to be expanding opportunities for every child so every student can gain an excellent education. Specifically, I would support more differentiated instruction so that advanced kids at every school can do advanced work. I talked to a senior from Lincoln High School and [she told me], ‘I’m doing an eighth grade curriculum.’ And she looked so sad because she clearly knew that she was capable of more. She wanted more and she wasn’t getting more.”
Simon said she has talked to parents whose children are in similar circumstances, a situation that she said results in the kids becoming disengaged from their education, adding that she would also like to see more flexibility in the way in which students are taught throughout the district. Simon noted that she would also like to see a public Montessori school opened in Jersey City, something Lyles accomplished in her previous school district in Delaware.
“This is not impossible,” she said. “Doing things differently, offering teachers a way to do things differently is totally possible. It’s just a matter of everybody working together to make it happen.”
Finding the great equalizer
Lyons, who was appointed to Adames’ seat until the special election for that seat could be held, said he wants to see college-level work offered to advanced high school students throughout the city. At present, he said, Rutgers University offers college-level courses to students at McNair Academic High School, one of the city’s best public schools, but similar opportunities are not offered to students at the city’s other high schools.
Since Lyles was hired last year, equalizing the district’s resources has become a top concern of the school board, although there is still much debate regarding the best ways to ensure that students in Ward F get the same level of education as students downtown. Similarly, the board has discussed ways to improve the overall level of education so that this school district is more on par with wealthier districts elsewhere in the state.
Lester, another current school board member, said, “I would like to see a further expansion of technology and the kind of usages that the wealthier districts have. I helped push for WiFi in every school, which happened last year. But we need a lot more than that. At least we now have the infrastructure. But kids in other school districts are able to do programming. They’re able to hook up to platforms that are really state of the art. I would like our kids, across the curriculum, to be able to do that.”
Lester acknowledges that money is the biggest barrier to Jersey City public schools having those resources.
“Because of our proximity to Manhattan, the business center of the world, I think there are opportunities for us to create a [nonprofit] foundation, which would be able to accept and administer grants on behalf of the school district, and maybe partner with some corporations that give education grants,” said Lester. “Let’s say Goldman Sachs wants to partner with us [and offer grant money for technology], I don’t mind having their name someplace in our schools.”
Such corporate sponsorships are controversial, however, and some parents feel uncomfortable with companies “marketing” their brands to kids in school. Still, Lester believes that the school district and education advocates in Jersey City must aggressively pursue the creation of an education-based foundation to support improvements in the district.
Still, Valentin and Richardson said it is important not to overlook the needs of students who may not be suited for college who will need vocational training and an education that they can use in a trade.
The Lyons-Valentin-Richardson-Verdibello slate also opposes what the candidates perceive as efforts to privatize some staff functions within the school district and any plans the state may have to close schools that have been labeled as “failing.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.