I am a working mom, a homeowner, and a Jersey City resident. With the Jersey City Board of Education elections coming up- I find myself increasingly concerned about some of the messaging coming from candidates running for BOE Trustee positions. The BOE elections and candidate platforms tend to not focus on the needs of the JCPS kids. I know Jersey City taxes are not a fun topic for anyone, but I feel that the needs of our JCPS kids are getting overshadowed by the ugly tax situation. While there is a long history of systematic underfunding of JC schools, and plenty of blame to go around, the fact of the matter is schools are funded through a school tax levy- which is only one part of our total tax bill. Another fact is that the BOE is an autonomous governing body that has a fiduciary responsibility, by mandate, as elected trustees to ensure that our school tax levy is adequately investing in our schools.
So when BOE campaign statements don’t focus on the needs of our JCPS kids, and mostly focus negatively on the taxes and the needs of developers, that concerns me. One campaign statement that really struck me was: “When inquired about the past contributions from the developers,” a Trustee running for reelection had “no issue” because he believes that “it would behoove everyone, especially real estate developers to have good schools.” Wait- especially real estate developers? Shouldn’t this say especially JCPS kids. I am not worried about the developers, they are doing just fine. I want to see BOE candidates focus on the progress in our schools for the JCPS kids.
To be frank, I am not the District’s biggest fan, but I am one to give some credit where some credit is due. So while there is a lot of work still ahead of us- I want to acknowledge that the district has actually made some good progress. This progress was made in spite of the SDA that abandoned it, the State who ignored it, the City who carved it out of progress, and the developers who funded slates who will look out for the interests of the developers.
The reality is that since the district has worked toward a fair and fully funded budget, coupled with responsibility using one-time State and Federal funds, some very good things have happened. The district has regained full local control, made big progress on water remediation, negotiated more competitive teacher salaries in order to attract quality candidates for full time employment, and is making improvements and repairs to old school buildings that have been ignored by the state and the city for decades. Efforts are being made toward better transparency and communication with weekly calls, monthly status updates, and even updates to school websites including a link showing specific staffing updates. The district is also making progress with efforts to provide mental health support services to JCPS kids by partnering with the community and local organizations to address mental health needs at various stages. Our kids have chromebooks and upgrades in technology. Contrary to the negative ads, we do have shining stars in all of our highschools. Is everything perfect? No. Are we making progress? Yes. That is what our kids need- progress.
Progress takes funding, investment, accountability, commitment, transparency, and ultimately- some time. So when local advocacy for a fully funded budget which focused on the needs of our kids started ramping up- progress started its process- slowly but surely. So while things may not be moving as fast as I would like- I do feel that the district is taking the right steps forward towards progress.
Those who are skeptical of our schools tout that even with a fully funded budget “we are still behind.” That blows my mind. Yes- even with a fully funded budget we ARE still behind! That is because the chronic and systematic underfunding of our schools has negatively impacted the district’s ability to make progress as quickly as we would like. We entered and exited a pandemic with a first time fully funded budget, yet still with severely underfunded processes in place, which has made it extremely difficult to dig our way out of the deficit of services and staff. It may be a slow and steady process to dig our way out of this deficit of services- but we need to maintain a fully funded path forward, every year, to build upon the foundation of a thorough and efficient education. Why is this expected to happen in the blink of an eye?
Let’s recall that about ten years ago or so, Jersey City was not quite yet the “Gold Coast” that it is today. That transformation took some time and a lot of money. So why can’t we afford our schools the same? The schools deserve the same grit to glam makeover that the city originally monopolized through abatements and exclusive partnerships with developers. Tthat makeover is coming via a state mandated and monitored funding formula collected through the local school tax levy. The State rightfully acknowledged that Jersey City had the highest tax base in the entire state yet the one of the lowest school tax rates. To date, JCPS school tax levy is still not meeting the state average. So why should that be?
I want BOE Trustees who are concerned about the needs of our kids and understand that the district budget accounts for many things including the socio-economic diversities of our communities, including our special needs students, our English Language Learners, and our kids who qualify for free and reduced lunch. The city budget does not. The developers do not. I want BOE Trustees who can guide the city into responsible leadership and planning, because the city should have been able to prepare, wean itself off of its padded budget that was built on the backs of our kids, and maybe even welcomed this overdue progress. The city hasn’t done that.
Strong schools build a stronger foundation for Jersey City- and that helps all of us. Adequate funding makes a difference. It serves as an equalizer. It provides opportunity, choices, and safety. It provides for better student outcomes, experiences, and achievements. So if we care about that, we need to vote for BOE Trustees who will hold the city and developers accountable to the needs of our kids and do their jobs- which is to put the needs of our kids first- as they are mandated to do.