At a meeting last Tuesday, the Van Vorst Park Association heard from candidates running for the city’s Board of Education.
The candidates represented three slates: Education Matters, Change for Children, and Voice for Progress. Below are highlights of their conversation, which focused on creating what they described as a more equitable, affordable, and innovative community for the 2022–2023 school year.
Noemi Velasquez, who is running under the Education Matters banner, kicked off the meeting. A resident of Jersey City for 50 years and a veteran teacher, Valasquez has served on the Jersey City Board of Ed as an at-large member since 2019.
“I hope the work that I have done on the board, I know it has not always been pleasant for those who are not in the trenches,” she said. “But everything I have done in the board has been at the interest of the students and keeping them in mind.”
Velazquez said that city funds should be directed toward increasing faculty and improving building infrastructure for students.
She noted that she was “against” the City Council’s May 2022 property tax increase (although she did not say how else the district could have met its budgetary needs). If re-elected, Velazquez said she would advocate for better wages for teachers and against “high-priced” curricula.
Christopher Tisadle, who is also running as part of the Education Matters, has taught in both Englewood, New Jersey and, since 2001, in Jersey City’s charter schools.
Tisdale told the Van Vorst residents about his own arc as a teacher and how his initiation into the profession shaped his teaching philosophy.
“It took me around three months to fully understand how students worked in a classroom setting. I realized it was just a matter of what you did with the students and how you made them feel in the classroom that would determine the outcome.”
Tisdale said he is running for a board seat because “there is a lack of real direction coming from the administrative office.” He characterized the city as unaccountable and opaque in its use of funds, calling their performance in the area “totally unacceptable.“ Tisdale refers to his platform as TEACH: transparency, equity, accountability, community and honesty.
Afaf Muhammad, another Education Matters candidate, was born and raised in Jersey City and has four daughters who graduated from the city’s public schools. Muhammad is a mental health first-aid instructor and has served as vice president of the parent council of Mahatma K. Gandhi School, P.S. 23. She said that, among other things, her campaign would focus on aiding students who suffer from mental health problems.
“I want students to know they are not alone in their struggles,” she said.
Muhammad also said that, if reelected, she would lobby for increased investment in social and art programs “to help integrate students in the classroom setting” and advocate for more “innovative spaces” in the school district.
“Our children are learning differently than we did … I want to help students reach their full potential,” she said.
Attendees also heard from the three representatives of Change for Children: Doris Toni Ervin, Alexander Hamilton, and Kenny Reyes.
Ervin, a Jersey City native and former classroom teacher, said she would like to see more “checks and balances” put in place to protect wayward board spending.
She also lamented the inequities amongst the city’s schools that are partly responsible for Jersey City’s placing in the bottom 50 percent of school districts in the state according to PublicSchoolsReview.com.
“We are all under one district. Instead of falling behind, we should be advancing,” Ervin said.
While working as a teacher, Ervin also led professional education workshops. At Hudson County Community College, she taught child development, an experience she said gave her insight into the needs of students preparing to go to college.
Alexander Hamilton is running for reelection to the board and said one of his foremost concerns is fiscal transparency and accountability.
“I just don’t see the results we are supposed to be getting with this,” he said of the nearly $300 million increase in the district’s budget in the span of three years.
Hamilton told listeners he’d voted against the budget for the past three years although believes Jersey City needs to pay its teachers more if they are to retain them.
He called for the hiring of a “public budget officer,” someone to watch over and rein in spending.
The father of a son with special needs, Hamilton said he would prioritize setting up programs to help inner city minority kids attend college at no cost.
“I think the most important thing you can do is donate your time to something like this,” Hamilton said, referring to improving the city’s schools.
Kenny Reyes was the third Change for Children candidate at the forum. A father of two special-needs children, he said:
“When I look at all the money the district has at their disposal and I pair that to the quality of education that my kids are receiving, there is a massive disconnect there. … If elected I will address these issues.”
Reyes said Change for Children would seek federal funding for more programs in STEM and so the district could offer entrepreneurship courses for students. Also a priority, Reyes said he would spend federal dollars on improving special education as the need “personally hits home as I always think of my two sons.”
The final candidate to speak was Isnel Sanon, who is running on the Voice for Progress ticket. CEO of the eponymously named Sanon Global accounting firm, Sanon said he understood the need for the city’s recent property tax increase but believes the board needs to exercise more oversight on spending. He also said the board doesn’t learn from its mistakes.
“We know how to create policies but never go back to these same policies and make changes to the things that don’t work. I want to go back and review some of these policies that block us from getting the results we need,” he said.
On curriculum, Sanon said, “Connecting students to private sector jobs and investing in school infrastructure is the key to moving the school district forward.”
Sanon said he has twice served under the vice president of the NAACP.