The adoption of the Jersey City Schools’ first $1 billion budget was overshadowed last night by angry, racially charged denunciations and passionate defenses of Superintendent Norma Fernandez and an all girl’s school slated to open this Fall.
Touched off by a rumor that a faction of the board would call a no-confidence vote on Fernandez, members of the Jersey City Education Association turned out in force to register their support for the embattled superintendent. Many wore red t-shirts with “JCEA” or “Latinos Unidos” emblazoned across the front.
A smaller and largely Black group of parents, school employees, and advocates were there to voice their disapproval of Fernandez. Some wore t-shirts with slogans such as “Legalize Being Black” and “Black on Top.”
The evening started off with a 26-minute budget presentation from Acting School Business Administrator, Dr. Dennis Frohnapfel. For the 2023-24 year, appropriations will increase by 2.85 percent bring the total budget to $1,001,537,924. The tax levy — or amount charged to residents in the form of property taxes — will come to 434,772,558, a 2 percent increase over the prior year. However, the tax assessments for the average home will actually decrease by $51. The average cost per student will come to $24,229.
The small drop in the average tax assessment comes after several years of sharp tax increases brought on by a state law known as S1 that requires property-rich districts like Jersey City to bear a greater portion of school costs than before, and a push by education advocates to “fully fund” the schools.
Left out of the budget until an accounting issue is resolved was a recent $33 million grant of state aid meant to soften a state aid cut of $51 million in “supplemental stabilization aid” under S1.
After an unsuccessful attempt by Trustee Lorenzo Richardson to strike funding for the planned “Girls’ Preparatory Academy” from the budget, the budget passed 8–0. Trustee Gina Verdibello was absent.
The relative calm lasted only long enough for recognition of Arab-American Heritage Month and students’ speeches.
Reading from her phone, Jamillah Moore asked why the construction for the Girls’ Academy was moving forward at P.S. 39. “Can somebody explain why construction is going on during instruction hours … my asthmatic son was out of school for two weeks … he left the doctor’s office with six prescriptions … Dr. Fernandez is allowed to do as she pleases.”
Daryn Martin said the construction was “illegal” and “about racism.” According to Williams, Fernandez and Director of Human Resources Edwin Rivera have engaged in “biased hiring practices.” Addressing the board, he said, “If you want to stay with Norma Fernandez … be ready to get handcuffs with her, too.”
Other speakers aligned with Moore and Williams complained of unaddressed incidents of bullying and anti-Black bias in hiring and promotion.
McNair Academic teacher Jackie Shannon said Fernandez is nurturing a “culture of positivity” and is “a steady hand who cares about the children of Jersey City first.” Added Shannon, “I’m embarrassed by the way some of the Board members have treated her.”
Tessa Mateo said, “Why are you sending the message to board members that a Latina isn’t good enough? Is she a target?
No sooner had the public speaking portion of the meeting come to an end when Trustee Lorenzo Richardson said he was “flabbergasted” by rumors that he and a group of “rogue” trustees would move for a no-confidence vote. Pointing to the board, he continued, “Whatever prompted that had to come from here.”
At this, board Vice President Noemi Vasquez shot back, “And it did come from here because in our meeting on Monday … you, Mr. Richardson, said ‘We have five (no confidence) votes'”
Board President Natalia Ioffe jumped in, “We are not arguing. This entire meeting has been about coming to a reset … I’m not liking the debate, and I’m not liking the argument … I want to put a pause on the argument.”
Correction: This article previously misidentified Daryl Martin as Arthur Williams.