A rancorous Board of Education meeting on Thursday night was dominated by the teacher shortage, ethics complaints and talk of threats.

Numerous parents and even one student took to the podium to complain about the district’s teacher shortage, which has been going on for months and they say is threatening to prevent the full curriculum of some classes from being covered.

Dickinson High School student Sara Khiri said she’d been in classrooms without teachers and that students have been “acting out from lack of structure.” (She also said Dickinson lacks sufficient entrances since not all doors have metal detectors.)

“We do have staffing issues across the nation; we just had a job fair,” said Dr. Norma Fernandez in response to the speakers’ concerns.

Suggesting that the shortage is partly due to teachers’ sustained fear of contracting Covid-19 on school premises, Fernandez said, “This district is looking for staff that is willing to come to work.”

Vice President Velazquez thanked Khiri for her remarks and asked that she email them to the board for follow up. 

Several parents alluded to the board’s recent transferring of teachers from one venue to another, including to the Jersey City Leadership School for Young Women. These actions, they say, exacerbate the teacher shortage for most students. Many parents said their children had missed critical subject matter for over a year.

As other residents got up to speak during the public comments section of the evening, the meeting often became acrimonious. 

Joseph Pagon asked President Natalia Ioffee to step down from her role as president, saying the board already has a “black eye” due to previous ethics complaints. 

Ioffee did not respond.

In her remarks, Elizabeth Perry responded to Vice President Noemi Velazquez’ rhetoric from the Dec. 2022 meeting during which Velazquez said she felt that she and other board members were being attacked because of their Latino background. Perry is Afro-Latina and mentioned this when responding to Velazquez. 

“An elected official felt offended,” said Perry, “and then invited people to put a personal attack against a public speaker, me.” 

Velazquez did not respond. 

Ronnie Greco, Jersey City Education Association President and frequent participant at BOE meetings, lashed out at Trustee Barkouch, telling him, “Watch yourself.” He said that during the closed portion of the board’s reorganization meeting in early January, Barkouch “finger pointed, screaming at Natalia Ioffee.”

Although responses to comments are usually made later in the meeting, Greco was immediately told his comments were “threatening” and to be careful and watch himself. 

Later in the meeting, Barkouch did openly apologize to President Ioffee and Vice President Velazquez, saying that he was “very upset” at the results of the November 2022 election and that he “hoped this could be a learning opportunity” in his professional life. He also asked Greco to apologize to Ellen Ruane, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, about the comments he directed at her in December. 

Ironically, in the midst of all these comments, Thomas Macagnado, principal of McNair Academic High School, spoke to the board about being more cautious with their own words, saying that despite their rule to not speak of personnel matters publicly, they often made public comments that could easily trace back to specific personnel.  He also quoted the board’s website saying, “While comments may of course be critical in nature, they may not be in any way disrespectful, vulgar or threatening towards any board member, superintendent or school staff.”

Newley elected Trustee, Afaf Muhammad summarized the tone of the meeting best, saying “It was a little overwhelming,” 

During the meeting, a moment of silence was held for a Temara King, a third-grade teacher, who died on Jan. 24 after an incident of domestic violence. An additional moment of silence was held for Dr. James Jay Markey III, the communication’s supervisor for the district, who died on Jan. 10 at the age of 49.  

Vincent Onofre is a journalist based in the tri-state area. Raised in Texas, he has found a love for the northeast and New Jersey pizza. His go-to beats include politics and civics, healthcare and education....