Yesterday we sat down with Ward A council candidate Kristen Zadroga-Hart, covering everything from parks to school funding. Here’s our conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.
JCT: Tell us a little about your academic background and your work in the community.
KZH: I know people like to say “born and raised and still here” in Jersey City. I grew up on Duncan Avenue. I attended St Aiden’s Grammar School, St. Dominic Academy for high school. Then I went on to University of Nebraska. I went out there to play softball but ended up walking onto the soccer team. I finished my special education concentration at Jersey City State College at the time, and I received my master’s in educational leadership from Arkansas State University. I’ve been a teacher-educator in the Jersey City Public Schools. This is my 28th year. For the first 25 years, I worked with at-risk students with between Renaissance, Bright Street Academy, and the Zero Tolerance Program. And then for the past three years, I’ve been athletic director at McNair Academic High School.
JCT: You ran for state assembly in 2017, am I correct? What makes you want to run for office again?
KZH: In 2017, my main goal was focused on education funding and coming from a standpoint as an educator. I think so much of education is left to corporations at this point, and it’s made by legislators, and there’s not decisions made from the people actually in the classrooms. So, it’s kind of a second-hand, third-hand experience. So, that was the reason I ran for assembly; to try to make a change statewide. And then just over the past four years, eight years, however long it’s been, I’ve realized that the local level also needs a change. We need a focus on education, youth recreation, and basically violence in the streets. I think a lot of what’s happening stems from a lack of funding we get through education. And, I think why not start at the most local level in terms of trying to fund our schools and get some attention paid to our youth in Jersey City.
JCT: So, you would be running against Denise Ridley. Why should Denise Ridley be replaced in Ward A?
KZH: I’ve been knocking on doors and speaking to people. They feel that they’re the forgotten ward, they’ve been left behind, no one cares about them. People only come around when it’s election time. They make promises, they never follow through. So, I think having an independent voice in Ward A that’s not afraid to speak up and speak out and fight for the residents of Ward A and the constituents and my neighbors, I think is important. I don’t have anyone to have to answer to as an independent and progressive voice. I think I can be a sounding board and fight for what the residents actually want and need.
JCT: Are there specific issues that you think Councilwoman Ridley has neglected?
KZH: I think a lot of parks in Ward A … I think there have been a few that have been worked on, but many of them have been neglected despite people fighting and trying to get answers on getting their own neighborhoods fixed up and cleaned up and people not afraid to go bring their kids to play in them. The flooding in Country Village has been a huge issue for a long time, and those residents feel not enough or nothing has been done to help them. Just after the last storm, Ida, every time there’s rain, there’s issues. And a lot of it has to do with development and not following through on infrastructure-type things to help them out to get some relief.
Bayfront with affordable housing and how that’s going to be developed: I think there needs to be greater independent oversight with that coming down the pike. We don’t have a youth center. There’s no recreation or community center in Ward A, and people always promise one. That would be something I would be very passionate about bringing as soon as possible, to get the funding and be creative about it. It doesn’t have to be just youth. The seniors don’t have a senior center in Ward A, either. So, it could be a senior center during the day, during school hours. And then after school, it would transition to more of a youth and afterschool center. So I think those are just a few of the things that the residents want and haven’t seen any movement on.
JCT: Ward A is known as having maybe the most serious crime problem in Jersey City. Is there anything that you think the city could be doing better and specifically the Fulop administration and Denise Ridley on that score?
KZH: I think community policing is a phrase that’s used, overused maybe, and people don’t understand it, or they think it’s cliché. But, every day I drive home, I pass Triangle Park, and there’s a new park there. I give the city full credit for refurbishing that park, and it looks beautiful, but there’s never any children in there. Parents are afraid. There’s a police car stationed right outside the park, lights flashing all the time. And it’s just a symbol of what the city is. And I don’t blame the police officers. I think they’re doing what they’re told. I think we have a great police force, but I think the administration’s approach to crime fighting is very reactive as opposed to proactive. And, I think we need community policing: the police officers outside of the car, walking on the beat, interacting with residents, getting to know people. It comes from the administration.
There needs to be a change in how we approach community quality of life. I think calls , are greatly ignored because the administration is trying to avoid maybe negative interactions with the community. But I think if we’re proactive about it and people aren’t afraid to approach a police officer … people just want to get outside of their houses not afraid to walk to the store, not afraid to sit on their porch.
JCT: You’ve mentioned infrastructure, you’ve mentioned community centers. We’ve now talked about crime. Are there any other goals you would have as Ward A councilperson for your first term?
KZH: First and foremost, for me would be fully funding our schools. Our public schools have been left behind in terms of funding, either through abatements and pilot payments that are going to the city coffers and not the public school coffers, which they should be getting their percentage of. And, with more cuts coming down from Trenton, I think City Hall needs to make our public schools a priority. And also affordable housing is a big issue and workforce housing especially in Ward A as that gentrification line spreads south. I think we need to make sure we’re not pricing our long-term residents out of the city.
JCT: Let me channel the mayor for a second. I think he would say that the Jersey City public schools have recently increased the budget by a large amount. And, people are saying the schools are for the first time fully funded by virtue of that increase and that, in fact, the schools’ budget is larger than the city’s budget. And accordingly, it’s not the city’s legislative responsibility statutorily to fund the schools, that’s for the schools, public schools to do with their power to levy taxes. And, finally, I think he’d probably say that currently Jersey City is spending a lot if you look it on a per-student basis. Do you believe that Jersey City needs to kick in more to the schools or kick in money to the schools at all? Is that the city’s responsibility?
KZH: I would absolutely challenge that if that was coming out of anyone’s mouth. Just because this one year they challenged the Board of Ed to raise the tax levy and fully fund the schools, the schools have been neglected for 20 years. The school infrastructure is crumbling. Students don’t have clean drinking water. There’s very few activities that students can do beyond the minimum because of funding. We have $14 billion worth of real estate in Jersey City that doesn’t pay a penny towards our public schools, so that money needs to come from somewhere. The PILOT money has been going directly into the city’s budget when 25 percent of that traditionally would be going towards the public schools. MS-40 has a free and reduced lunch rate of 96 percent. That means four of every hundred students in MS-40 might know where their dinner’s coming from. Ninety-six of them would be living at or below the poverty level. We have a higher number of special education students in Jersey City compared to other districts. We have a higher number of English language learners in Jersey City compared to other districts. So, by looking at our per-student costs, I think is a very skewed way of looking at how much we invest in our students. Our students have greater needs being a large urban district. And I think the city has every responsibility to fund the schools.
JCT: Do you think the schools have been transparent enough about how they spend their money?
KZH: I think the schools are much more transparent than City Hall. The budget is online. You can go online and you can see where the money is coming from month by month from the itemized budgets that are put online and are voted on at board meetings. So, I think the school board has no choice but to be transparent about how they spend money.
JCT: What do you think apart from changing the way the police do their job is the solution to improving public safety?
KZH: I think the city needs to prioritize social services in terms of social workers, addiction counselors, even something as important as nutritionists within the health and wellness of our residents. I think we need to rethink how we are reaching out to people. If someone calls who’s having a mental health episode and you send a police officer there, they’re not trained. And, I wouldn’t think they would even feel comfortable going into that situation because they don’t have that training. Whereas if we allocate money towards more social services, we can get to the root of problems and possibly help even with the homeless situation. There’s so many homeless people in Ward A, and a lot of that comes from lack of services that we’re providing as a community.
JCT: You are facing a very well funded opponent. How are you going to get your message out?
KZH: I’ll do what I’ve always done for candidates that I’ve helped. I think nothing can compare to knocking on doors, making phone calls, talking to people. It was said many years ago, signs don’t vote, and bank accounts don’t vote. So, I think just getting my message out now through social media, through meet-and-greets, through conversations I’m having with people. I think as a long-term activist in the community, I think I have a little bit of name recognition that that can help me. And, I think people know that I have an open door where if you have an issue or if you have a problem, you can reach out to me. So, I think just hard work can be a huge bank account, or that’s my hope.
JCT: Do you accept donations from developers?
KZH: No, absolutely not. I don’t even think a developer would approach me with a donation. But, if that were on the off chance to happen, I would not.
JCT: Is there anything that you want to talk about that we haven’t talked about just now? Any burning issues that you want to let the reader know about?
KZH: Sustainability and lack of sustainability in Ward A. There are so many opportunities to sort of change the course of where we’ve headed. There are huge places where there’s been contaminated land and now it’s covered up, which causes a lot of flooding. I think we need to rethink how we’re allowing people to build and develop and sort of right some wrongs. Country Village Park is an example. If you look at Hoboken and Bayonne, they’re both starting to build what are called “resiliency parks,” where they don’t only provide recreation for residents, but they also help with environmental issues we’re having such as flooding.
Just rethinking the way that we do a lot of things. Rooftop gardens on a lot of houses could help with flooding in certain areas. Legislating that you cannot have concrete slabs on new development anymore. Turning parks into resiliency parks where underneath the grass that we have are basins that can hold 500 thousand gallons worth of water so that we can redirect a lot of the flooding that we get in Ward A. Planting more trees. If you look at the tree canopy, Ward A is greatly lacking, and there’s so many opportunities there where we can provide treat trees not only because they beautify the neighborhood, but they also help with environmental and flooding issues.