I recently had the opportunity to chat with Ron Greco, president of the Jersey City Education Association.

A familiar face to those who attend Board of Education meetings where he often weighs in on behalf of the 4,000 teachers and support staff he represents, Greco is passionate when discussing the challenges confronting the Jersey City Public Schools.

Greco started his career in 1995 as a substitute teacher at Lincoln High School and became a full-time social studies teacher a short time later. In 2012, he moved into his present role in the union.

Teaching was an obvious career choice. His father taught for 40 years at Jersey City’s Public School 23.

Like so many born-and-bred Jersey Citians, Greco proudly recounts how he was born at Margaret Hague Hospital. He lives in Jersey City with his family.

For some parents and residents, teachers’ unions are, at best, a necessary evil, advocating for adequate pay but protecting low-performing teachers and standing in the way of school choice. Some blame the unions for delaying school reopenings during the pandemic.

With the recent election that saw three union-backed candidates elected to the Board of Education, all nine board members are now aligned with the JCEA. Some school reformers would see this as a case of the inmates guarding the asylum. Greco pushes back on this narrative.

Below are excerpts from our conversation.

Union control of the Board of Education

“Although we have endorsed these people, we have supported these people, we hope they do the right thing, there have been many, many times where it’s been demonstrated that they are not just a rubber stamp of the union. I know that’s what some detractors will say.”

“When you do get on the board, you rarely hear from me” he says of the new board members.

Graduation rates (In 2019, just 75 percent of Jersey City high school seniors graduated)

“We have a lot of ideas. It starts with the curriculum and the courses we are offering.

I think the whole system needs to be overhauled. A lot of it is dictated by the state. For a long time we’ve taken away programs for children who wanted a different career path other than a traditional four year college. We need to look at the math and science we offer.

We have supervisors falling over each other at the BOE and the curriculum and instruction department…I don’t think they’re pulling their weight.

Children’s brains today are wired differently, and we’re teaching the way you and I went to school.

You and I think of the old home economics and wood shop. Those things are long gone. Desktop publishing…architectural drafting. Everything now is done on computers. We have to lure children into their interests.”

The teacher shortage

“Based on what I’ve seen” says Greco, “yes, there will be a teacher shortage next year.”

Greco recalls a recent conversation with a teacher who said, “I live 13 miles from here, and I’m ready to leave, and I’m on top pay. The road construction on the turnpike is ridiculous, there’s no parking.”

Says Greco, “These external factors are forcing people to leave. I’ve heard that from many, many people.

Let’s look at New York, let’s look at Philadelphia. How are they attracting people?”

Patronage and waste

“The school systems have always been patronage mills…it’s still a problem.

There’s always these devious plots to get people jobs at the board. We have a lot of flunkies at City Hall here…I’m not blaming Steven Fulop.”

School funding

“People are really affected by these tax increases, greatly. It really hits you in the pocketbook. I hear them (the residents). I’m also a resident of the city.”

Greco says that legislators from around New Jersey have encouraged their voters not to support big urban school districts, saying, “Hey, we’re sending all this money to Newark and Jersey City and Paterson and other urban areas…what are we getting for that? I’m living here in Belmar, in Paramus, and part of your money is going to Jersey City.”

Greco continues. “Our revenues are very limited. The state is slashing, slashing aid. I had a ten-second meeting with Phil Murphy, and he said, ‘Your city has to fund the schools.’ I said, thank you Governor.”

Speaking of efforts by the city to help find a solution, Greco says, “They had one meeting at Lincoln Park. You can’t have one meeting. The state of New Jersey is not going to help us. They say, ‘You wanted local control, now you have it. Now fund your schools. We want out of education. We’re not giving you all this money.’ At the same time, we can’t kill the taxpayer. We have to be creative.

We’ve had such a free ride. The aid is going away.”

Charter Schools

“Do I like that concept, I do. They were supposed to be incubators. The DOE was supposed to look at it, replicate it, and offer it to the traditional public schools.

The concept is a good idea. It’s a noble one. Parents have a right to send their kids wherever the want.

There has to be some oversight as to what is being taken (financially) from the public schools.

When I was in college, the mindset was public good, charter bad. That’s not the case now.”

Covid-19

“It was an unprecedented event. They were thrown in a position…they didn’t know what to do,” says Greco.

Unfortunately, he adds, “The children are so far behind….I couldn’t give you a hard percentage number.

We never had a say in when the schools would open. It was always the superintendent and the board. When it came to opening or closing the schools, we weren’t really consulted on that.

I remember the rally of parents on Claremont Avenue. Overwhelmingly, parents wanted their kids back in school. I told them, ‘We don’t have a say.’ I remember the business administrator (for the city) told me the schools weren’t ready. I think they did a good job.”

Aaron Morrill

Aaron is a writer, musician and lawyer. Aaron attended Berklee College of Music and the State University of New York at Purchase. Aaron served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. He received a J.D....