Only four of nine school board candidates showed up for Tuesday night’s forum sponsored by the Van Vorst Park Association (VVPA). Notably absent were all three candidates on the Change for Children slate who said they never received invitations despite VVPA claims to the contrary.
The forum went ahead as planned with Education Matters candidates Younass Mohamed Barkouch, Natalia Ioffe and Paula Jones Watson and independent candidate Afaf Muhammad, opining on school finance matters, special education issues, bullying, and other concerns.
Muhammad introduced herself as a lifelong resident of Jersey City who is serving her third term as a committee person for the Jersey City Democratic Organization in Ward B, District 8. She is also a mental health first aid instructor.
“My focus as trustee will be to support students, parents and teachers, administrators, and staff to reform Jersey City schools to be a place where education is priority by addressing issues that have been neglected,” Muhammad said.
Jones Watson, also a lifelong resident of the city and a Hudson County Community College instructor, said she has taught at the elementary and high school levels in the Jersey City Public Schools, including as head teacher at Lincoln High School and as an “inclusion specialist.”
“One of my main priorities when hopefully becoming a board member is to embellish some of the things that are going on in special ed classes,” Jones Watson said.
Natalia Ioffe, a parent volunteer in the district, said that over the past seven years she has “had the opportunity to develop multiple successful models,” such as a “foundation, meaning a nonprofit arm for public schools” that would provide financial support in addition to tax revenue.
Barkouch is an alumnus of McNair Academic High School and graduate of Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and School of Arts and Sciences. He said he would focus on college readiness. Despite McNair’s high college readiness score, Barkouch believes improvements can be made by exposing students to career opportunities and internships.
“If I were elected, the goal would be to introduce my own mentorship initiative to provide academic support as well as professional development,” he said.
Ioffe said she would equip and engage parent councils across the city and create a unified support system for these groups. She noted there is inequity in the way services are distributed to parent councils.
As part of her intended focus on special education, Jones Watson said she would work on expanding vocational programs for students with a range of learning challenges.
Bullying is a personal concern for Muhammad, who said her daughter was bullied in school and that “there are children on the brink of suicide” in the district.
Upon hearing about the missed forum, Change for Children communication director, Ivette Almeida, said “[Neither] the Change for Children campaign office, nor any of our candidates, received an invitation by the Van Vorst Park Association to participate in the forum. We have always participated in all previous meetings and would have welcomed the opportunity to speak with the Van Vorst Park Association community.” VVPA President Benjamin Bernouy said that emails had been sent to each candidate.
Rebecca Missel of the Van Vorst Park Association reminded voters that Board of Education candidates will be listed on the back of their ballots for the Nov. 2 general election.
New Jersey voters can vote by mail, in person, or leave their ballots in secure drop boxes for the upcoming election. There will also be early voting from Saturday, Oct. 23 through Sunday, Oct. 31 from at least 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and from at least 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays.
Oct. 12 is the deadline to register to vote in the election.