Thursday night’s meeting of the Jersey City School Board was dominated by three issues: the state’s continued closure of the Astor Place Community Garden, whether or not the city’s schools should offer ice hockey as an intramural sport, and retention of teachers in a competitive environment.
The Astor Garden closure dispute has gone on for over a year now. In 2021, the New Jersey Schools Development Authority, a state agency, closed the garden despite the fact that Jersey City residents had been occupying the space for almost 10 years. In 2012, the Black Interest Team Enterprise, BITE, cleaned up the land and started the community garden and simultaneously provided pantry and hygiene items.
At the onset of the pandemic, the garden became a sanctuary for volunteers and a food source for those in need but SDA started investigating it’s usage in late 2020, eventually closing it because “the land was being used for unauthorized purposes,” as per NJSDA spokeswoman Edye Maier in an email to NJ.com. The original agreement for the use of the property included usage for only parking and recreation use and only by the district.
At the monthly Board of Education meeting, a myriad of public comments were presented in favor of the garden, and having it reopened to the community
Rosa Roney, a former crossing guard whose own family has attended PS-12, next to the Community Garden, spoke first about the importance of this space. Pointing to her great-granddaughters, she said “I have a before and after here.” The oldest of the two children had been at PS-12 as the garden came up, while the youngest is still at the school.
“She is about to walk through when it’s about to be another chaos,” said Roney pointing at the youngest of the two girls. “There’s balloons and signs hanging up where this kid got killed or that kid got killed.”
As she said this, her granddaughter held up a poster with images of the garden.
“It’s really pitiful when children are trying to go to school to get a good education and they have to walk through the stuff that’s going on.”
Maggie Branch, who works for a non-profit, recommended Astor Garden to her clients during the pandemic when food was in short supply.
“Astor garden has been very helpful with helping people from the community to receive resources, food, and whatever else they had to offer,” she said.
Bishop Tina Bland, founder and president of BITE, was the last to speak before the closed session, and reiterated the feelings of others in the meetings. “We feed almost 3000 per week. That should be a sense of urgency for all. But as I watch you on your phones, not even looking at the speakers, it’s not urgent to you.”
Highlighting the urgency of this space, Bishop Bland pointed out that many people arrived to the current pantry space hours before it opened.
“They’re there at 6 o’clock in the morning for a pantry that opens at twelve noon,” said Bland. “That is not something a mother, a father, or family does unless they are desperate.”
She ended by asking the board to find a way to reopen the garden, because she feels that the attorney’s aren’t as committed to the garden the way the community members are.
“I’m hoping that we as individuals can find a way to make the impossible possible”
President Gerald Lyons made it clear that while he was also in support of the garden, the board was limited in their power to restore it.
“It’s not our property but it still is our problem,” said Lyons.
After a closed session, board members returned with comments on the garden as well as other issues brought forward by public commentators.
“Does the Governor’s office know about what’s going on?“ asked Trustee Alexander Hamilton, suggesting the Board could bring his attention to the garden through a letter or evidence of what the garden looked like before and after the closure.
“This is literally tearing the community apart.”
Alternatively, Vice-President Gina Verdibello recommended that PS-12 become a community school, since the school already houses BITE. Community schools are often open to the public, providing pantry items, food, and activities. This would allow BITE to become an official part of the school, and allow the district to reapply for the space.
“[BITE] can come back in, doing what they were doing.”
Parents also brought to the Board their request for the potential addition of ice hockey as a school sponsored sport, like the Bayonne district has.
Although acknowledgements were made that Bayonne has a private rink and that the cost of ice hockey can be quite high for many students, Trustee Lekendrick Shaw pointed out the opportunities ice hockey could bring to Jersey City students.
“When I think of ice hockey,” he said, “I think of it in the same nature I think of lacrosse where there’s not that much participation across our demographics, but it’s also a niche market where you can get scholarships.”
In personnel news, the board discussed how to meet the competitive rates for teachers that other districts are offering, and how to have those teachers stay with the district long term.
Trustee Shaw spoke to previous plans the board had to fill in the teacher gap, by bringing in more retired teachers and substitute teachers, but acknowledged that this was difficult because many retirees did not want to return and substitute teachers required more pay than currently provided to them.
One of the proposed incentives is more time off. President Lyons said his conversation with a lawyer reinforced his belief this is a good strategy, “as long as the union and the district were ok with it.”
He does not believe that simply offering higher salaries will be a good long-term strategy.
“Newark just upped themselves. They raised themselves to 61 [thousand], so like a poker game, we raised ourselves to 61 [thousand]. Newark just raised themselves to 62 [thousand]. So is this what we’re going to have to look for? Cause if we do, we’re all going to lose,” he said, “We’re all going to lose. If everyone just keeps outbidding each other, we’re going to be at the point where we can’t afford to keep that up.”
Though no final solution was formalized, the board reminded attendees of the upcoming school job fair on October 1, encouraging former and aspiring teachers as well as substitutes to attend and become part of the solution to meet teacher demand.