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School Board Approves $736 Million Budget Proposal Representing a 47% Increase in the School Tax Levy


Final Budget for FY 2020-2021 Still Weeks Away
Board to Use Time for More Discussion and Public Input

At Friday’s special meeting of the Jersey City School Board parents praised Superintendent Franklin Walker’s proposed $736 million school budget for FY 2020-2021 and urged board members to approve it. If approved, it would increase the school tax levy (the part of assessed property taxes allocated to the public schools) $64 million, bringing the levy to $201 million.

Facing a midnight deadline to send an approval of the $736 million budget to Interim Executive County Superintendent Melissa Pearce, the board gathered at its Claremont Avenue headquarters to discuss the proposed budget. Eight of the nine board members supported the budget, but several members voiced concern that because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and with schools closed until further notice, an increased tax levy would burden homeowners at a time when many people are losing or getting laid off from their jobs. Superintendent Walker acknowledged these are tough times, but said children must come first.

Superintendent Franklin Walker, photo by Sally Deering

“I’m asking the board to invest in our children from the highest achiever to the most vulnerable,” Superintendent Walker said. “We are navigating difficult times, but our children are worth the sacrifice. If you think the cost to educate children of today is expensive, the cost not to educate them is much higher and has much greater consequence.”

Trustee Alexander Hamilton said he would like to postpone the vote during these uncertain times.

“I understand we want to pass this budget,” Trustee Hamilton said, “but I need to know what’s going on in the world, what’s going on in the city. I’m asking for this to be pushed back 30–60 days. I don’t care about the county. I care that the process is done right, and we make the proper assessment to get this done.”

Hamilton made a motion to postpone the vote, but no one seconded it.

Superintendent Walker’s budget includes the continuation of all existing programs and services, funding for ESL, a STEAM Academy, additional social workers and high school counselors, a mental health specialist and psychologist. The budget also calls for no teacher or staff layoffs or dismissals. Many of these concerns were brought up by parents in previous board meetings, and it seems Superintendent Walker listened.

Brigid D’Souza, a leader with Jersey City Together and a mother of two students at P.S. 3, said in response to the proposed school budget: “The initial budget from Superintendent Walker is both courageous and reasonable. It takes seriously the needs of Jersey City’s students and particularly its students who have the most needs. We hope the board does the right thing tonight and passes it, so they can begin more detailed discussions over the next two months.”

The school budget includes a $64 million school levy increase, which represents a 47% increase over last year’s school tax levy, but should not be mistaken for a 47% increase in property tax, which is made up of municipal, county and school taxes. The 2019-2020 school levy was $137 million. The 47% increase of $64 million will bring the school levy up to $201 million.

But the 2020-2021school budget still has a shortfall, Trustee Mussab Ali said.

Trustee Mussab Ali, photo by Sally Deering

“I think we need to recognize this is not a fully-funded budget,” Trustee Ali said. “Our schools last year were underfunded by $155 million. This year, despite the tax increase that we have, we would still be underfunded by $80 million based on the state formula of what is adequacy. That means last year we were underfunded by $5,000 per pupil. A student in our district was getting $5,000 less than what the state thinks is a thorough and efficient education. Even after our budget today, a student in our district will be getting $2,600 less than what the state thinks is a thorough and efficient education.”

Trustee Mussab Ali also wanted to clarify that the meeting that night was for the adoption of the budget, not a vote on the final budget.

“It doesn’t mean that today is the last day of the budget process,” Trustee Ali said. “It doesn’t mean this is the final version of the budget. We still will be getting public input and will be working on the budget over the course of the next six weeks. After that, we will vote to adopt a final budget.”

Parents called in during the public comments section of the meeting to voice their opinions. Scott Welfel, the father of a first-grade student said: “When we saw Superintendent Walker’s proposal,  we were thrilled. This is the type of leadership we need. We saw the mayor’s response. We think (it) was alarmist in an unsubstantiated way.”

Werfel was talking about Mayor Steven Fulop’s dismissal of the $736 million budget as “really irresponsible” as reported on NJ.com. The Mayor’s school budget plan had proposed $45 million in cuts and a $25 million yearly increase to the school tax levy over the next three years. The school board did not adopt any of those measures in its proposed budget.

“They’re going to destroy the taxpayers,” Mayor Fulop said. “They’re going to destroy residents, both renters and homeowners. People are struggling, and it’s not going to get easier for a couple of months.”

Superintendent Franklin Walker doesn’t think the mayor sees the big picture. He said the budget that’s being presented is part of the district’s strategic plan that prepares students for college and for jobs that have not even been created yet. Walker said that it’s the board’s responsibility to ensure students are academically competitive now and in the future. It’s called “future proofing,” he said.

“The strategic plan drives our budget,” Superintendent Walker said. “We’ve seen a significant decrease in the funding of millions of dollars over the last few years. This year, we have an increased allocation for our charter schools of $13 million. The cost of operating continues to increase. Last year, we had to lay off 400 teachers to submit a balanced budget. Our students deserve the best qualified teachers. In order to make Jersey City more desirable and continue to expand, we need all of our students and all of our schools to be successful.”

Making the midnight deadline, the board approved the school budget 8-1 with Trustee Alexander Hamilton the sole dissenter. School Business Administrator Regina Robinson said it would proceed to the county for approval if it covers all the guidelines. Assuming Hudson County approves it, the board would then have between April 24 and May 7 to adopt the budget before it went to the state for approval. During that window of time, there would be a public hearing for Jersey City residents and additional discussions by the board.

School Board President Lorenzo Richardson presided over the meeting with Trustees Mussab Ali, Alexander Hamilton, Gerald Lyons, Lekendrick Shaw and Noemi Velazquez in attendance, and Marilyn Roman, Gina Verdibello and Joan Terrell-Paige on speakerphone.

 

The School Board Caucus Meeting is scheduled for Mon, March 23 at 6 pm. It will not be open to the public, but may be viewed live on Facebook.com.

Header: Jersey City Board of Education special meeting on March 20, photo by Sally Deering

 

 

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JC School Board Holds Public Meeting on 2020-2021 Budget


Parents and Educators Implore the Board to Put Children First

Hillary Clinton wrote, “It Takes a Village” to raise a child. In the case of Jersey City’s public-school children, it takes a budget that will address their needs, from counseling to a decent breakfast.

A small yet impassioned group of parents and teachers spoke at the school board’s public meeting held at the Jersey City Board of Education’s (BOE) Claremont Avenue office Thursday night. They were there to give the nine-member board their input as it prepares the 2020-2021 school budget. The first draft goes to the county’s superintendent of schools on March 20, and the budget must be passed by May 14.

The Thursday night meeting in the Dr. Emery Konick, Jr. Conference Center took place two days after Mayor Seven Fulop and Ward D Councilman Michael Yun held a press conference outlining a $250 million school-funding plan to fill the BOEs $120 million budget gap. Fulop and Yun proposed a three-year commitment to transfer $40 million over from tax abatements to the BOE.  Their plan would also include spending cuts on firefighter and police recruitment, a pay freeze for select staff, limits on overtime pay and a school tax levy. School taxes are part of a homeowner’s property tax.

Board President Lorenzo Richardson spoke briefly about the mayor’s press conference, saying that he sent the mayor an email the morning of the press conference “providing directives as to what the needs of the schools are in terms of funding from the city.” In the email, President Richardson requested that the city fulfill its commitment to cover the state’s funding cut, which is projected to be $72 million (previously believed to be less than $55 million).

“At this time, we are dealing with funding issues related to state cuts,” President Lorenzo said at the start of the public forum.

Parent Nancy Pokler address the School Board.  Photo by Sally Deering

The board president then opened the public meeting to the small group of parents and educators who came to talk. Jersey City resident and P.S. 5 parent Nancy Pokler talked about the loss of 200 public school positions including 160 teachers, 25 assistants and aides, 20 janitorial, security and food service staff, and 15 administrator and supervisor positions. She spoke of the state’s SFRA (School Funding Reform Act) formula of 2008, used to determine how much each school district receives in funding.

“The SFRA shows that Jersey City can and should be funding its own schools,” Pokler said. “Jersey City has the largest tax base in the entire state and shockingly one of the lowest school tax rates, ranking 532 out of the 565 municipalities.”

Jyl Josephson, parent of a P.S. 26 fifth grader, said that she didn’t want to talk about the numbers. Instead she wanted to talk about Jersey City’s schoolchildren. Josephson told the board that in the past she attended many public-school board meetings where parents made demands about what they wanted without ever mentioning their children’s needs. Josephson said she hoped the board would focus on the children above all else.

“As you begin to make the many difficult and important decisions that you’ll be making over the next few months, I want you to start right now by thinking about children, children that are your primary constituents,” Josephson said. “Our schools have the task of identifying and finding our children’s talents, seeing their beauty and potential, helping them correct their mistakes and do better next time so they can become adults who live together and take care of each other in this beautiful and vibrant democracy. I hope that throughout this process, you will take a moment and imagine the kids and put those kids first.”

School Nurse at P.S. 6 in Jersey City for 18 years, Jackie Matthews asked the board to hire mental health counselors for children who are suffering from extreme anxiety and parental neglect. She said many of the children who are general education students come to school tired, hungry, and filled with anxiety. These children need counseling, she said.

“The children with IEPs get counseling from the social worker, from the school psychologist,  that’s part of their IEP,” Matthews said. “I’m talking about the general ed students who come to school tired, who come to school in the same clothes, who come to school unable to learn because they’re hungry. They’re anxious children who are empty vessels who I fill up one day and who come back the next day empty again.”

Prof. Jyl Josephson

After all the speakers addressed the board, Superintendent Walker thanked them for expressing their concerns about the students. He said the board will focus on restoring “appropriate staff and services to meet the educational needs of the students.”

President Richardson then closed the meeting with a promise to address the issues brought up by the parents and educators. He said, “We will be keeping all your comments in mind and make sure we do everything we can to make sure this budget respects every student in this district.”

President Richardson also said there will be more public meetings scheduled before the March 20 deadline.

Board members in attendance: Superintendent Franklin Walker, President Lorenzo Richardson, Vice President Gina Verdibello, Alexander Hamilton, Gerald Lyons, Marilyn Roman, Lekendrick Shaw, Joan Terrell-Paige, Noemi Velazquez, and School Business Administrator/Board Secretary Regina Robinson.

 

Next Regular Meeting of the School Board
Thurs, Feb. 27, 6 p.m.
P.S. 41 (Fred W. Martin Center for the Arts)
59 Wilkinson Ave, Jersey City
For more info: jcboe.org

 

Header: School board holds special meeting for input on 2020-2021 budget.  Photo by Sally Deering

 

 

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Charges of Political Opportunism and Racism Dominate As City Council Approves Board of Education Referendum


Last night, over five raucous hours punctuated by cheers, boos, and admonitions from City Council President Joyce Watterman, residents of Jersey City trudged up to the podium in the Council chambers to vent over the mayor’s proposal to turn the board of education into an appointed body. And vent they did. The proposal brought out teachers, union reps, activists, and parents, united in near-unanimous  opposition to the plan for a referendum that would put the question to voters.

Phil Rivo was notable as the evening’s sole dissenter.

“Right now, every year there is a board of education election. Every year, the teachers’ union is spending upwards of half a million dollars, and developers are spending half a million dollars for a job that pays nothing,” he said. Rivo then cited the five recent Board resignations before adding, “It doesn’t make sense. I would like to see professional people run it.”

If Rivo’s position was the exception, Josephine Paige’s was closer to the rule and highlighted a deep distrust of the mayor and his motives.

“A mayor who wants to change the democratic process is saying his judgment is better than the voters. I don’t want to see the board of education used to advance his political career.”

Lmani Viney standing and pointing at council, School Board president Lorenzo Richardson in foreground. Photo by Jersey City Times

History teacher Lmani Viney likened the mayor’s proposal to the democratic rights that were ceded to Hitler, Stalin, and Napoleon. Maria Scariati, who recalled fundraising for the mayor, ascribed the proposal to the mayor’s “insatiable appetite for primacy.”  McNair High School athletic director Kristen Zadroga-Hart described the referendum as “nothing more than an opportunistic power grab.”  “It feels sneaky” quipped fellow teacher Colleen Kelleher. “This is straight out of George Orwell,” opined Natalie Ioffe, a parent and Soviet émigré.  Referring to past and present African-American school superintendents and board members, Jersey City Education Association President Ronald Greco accused the mayor of having “a problem with black men.”  Tracey Luz ascribed the plan as an effort to promote white supremacy. And so it went for the mayor.

The city council came in for criticism as well.

“What’s the rush?” Chris Gadsen asked. “When were you going to discuss it with the people who actually elected you?”  “Don’t let anyone on this council take your schools away from you,” intoned Daryn Martin. Jeanne Daly demanded to know which council members had “been bought.” Echoing several other speakers, Daly promised to exact revenge on councilmembers. “This is going to be a big problem if you move forward,” he warned. “This is a promise.”

Numerous speakers brought up the case of board of education member Joan Terrell- Paige, whose comments on Facebook following the kosher market attack were deemed by many to have been anti-Semitic and which brought calls for her resignation.

Daryn Martin promised to remember at election time that councilmembers Jermaine Robinson and James Solomon had done exactly that.   “No one is going to get a slab of Joan Terrell Paige. She is not raw beef. Four Hasidic rabbis were indicted for organ trafficking,” said Kabili Tayari. “Ms. Terrell didn’t say anything wrong,” added Kathrine Burno. Steve Goldberg, on the other hand, asked the audience to call out anti-Semitism. “You can hate me, you can hate a Jew, but you can’t hate Jews.”  On a night where speakers were cheered liberally throughout the evening, the room responded with silence.

Also in attendance and apparently on a p.r. offensive was a group of Hasidic men, armed with banners, proclaiming their biblical duty to be good neighbors.

“We condemn buying houses and throwing people out,” said Yoel Loeb. “It isn’t right to call people with concerns anti-Semitic.”

Fellow Hasid, Joel Eidlits explained that they had come to Jersey City because they “couldn’t pay the rent in Brooklyn.”  Eidlits and Loeb both distanced themselves from the Anti-Defamation League, the Chabad Lubovitch movement, and the “evil Jews who created the state of Israel.”

In the end, the council voted 7 to 1 with one abstention to move ahead with the referendum. James Solomon noted that in seven years, not a single board member had been elected without the help of a “super-pac.”

“The issues before the board are huge; the status quo is unacceptable,” Solomon noted.

Council president Watterman explained that she “has to answer to parents.”

Summing up the views of several other councilmembers, she noted that “the vote will give the city a chance to reach a consensus. Let the people say.”

As the sole “no” vote, Councilman Rich Boggiano said he had conferred with the board and was “confident” that it could do the job.

The audience did not take the vote sitting down.

When taunted by an audience member, Councilman Jermaine Robinson offered to settle their differences “outside.” Then when the audience was reminded that the JCEA had promoted the candidacy of twice-indicted board president Sudhan Thomas, a screaming JCEA President Ronald Greco rushed the podium under the watchful eyes of two Jersey City cops. Before being led out of the chambers, Greco accused the council en mass of racism.

The referendum will take place on November 3, 2020. If approved by voters, a new, appointed board of education would be seated on July 1, 2021.

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