With the upcoming election, Jersey City residents have gone all over the internet to ask Board of Education candidates and other community members for answers to their most pressing questions before voting on Tuesday, November 8.
Online chatter has focused on three issues: an unpopular tax increase, teacher shortages, and low-test scores that were further impacted by the pandemic.
Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit have been the most popular means of communication from constituents as they try to figure out which of the candidates they will vote for. Below are the candidates’ positions.
Taxes and the budget
In a Reddit AMA held by current BOE member and candidate, Alexander Hamilton, “u/Automatic_Forever_43” asked a question that many constituents have been asking of the current and potential BOE members. “How do we ensure that the revenue brought into the school system is spent on the in classroom experience getting our kids ready for college or trade schools?”
Isnel Sanon (Independent): As one of the two independents running for seats, Sanon has touted his work with his own tax service as well as his affiliation with the NAACP.
In an interview with the Hudson Reporter, Sanon said his primary goal is to rein in the budget by using his financial knowledge to audit the books and avoid future tax increases unless they are crucial.
Ashan Nawaz (Independent): In the same interview, Nawaz, who is also running for public office for the first time, said he brings with him his background as a real estate agent who knows the city’s ins and outs. While he finds the tax levy useful, he believes in looking at procurement so that taxpayer money is used efficiently. In laymen’s terms, he wants to get rid of any programs that are not beneficial to the district or the students directly.
Noemi Velazquez (Education Matters): In a letter to the editor at Hudson County View, Velazquez clarified her perspective on budget issues. Citing budget cuts from the state, Velazquez said “it is not unreasonable for the second largest school district in New Jersey to request slightly more than a quarter of tax revenues.” However, like her peers, she believes in transparency and is in favor of the forensic audit approved by the board.
Afaf Muhammad (Education Matters): Putting the budget on hold is Muhammad’s goal. She wants to make sure, “the tax shell game stops between the state, the county, the city, and the school board district.” However, she did not clarify how the budget could be re-allocated to better serve the school district.
Christopher Tisdale (Education Matters): Like his running mate, Tisdale sees the budget increases leading to more wasteful spending and wants to find ways to create transparency for budget approvals, to ensure that any money coming in is appropriated only for things that are necessary.
Doris Toni Ervin (Change for Children): Ervin told JCT that ensuring that the money is used responsibly before any tax levy is key. “Spending without a plan has led us to where we are now. JCBOE’s most significant issue is the budget and being fiscally responsible,” she said, and suggested “working together with the BOE, the Superintendent, and the administration to understand better where the dollars are going [and] applying metrics to initiatives and [to] hold those accountable to ensure a more sustainable budget while increasing student academic proficiency and providing quality education.”
Kenny Reyes (Change for Children): With the previous budget allocations affecting teachers, Reyes said “anything relating to teachers when it comes to cuts is off the table.” Instead, during the debate between the candidates, he said the budget increases were a major issue because he believes the money was not being accounted for correctly but instead in a more “figurative” manner that led to misallocation.
Alexander Hamilton (Change for Children): Responding to the AMA thread, Hamilton said, “I think the best way to ensure that the money makes its way to our students is to hire a budget officer for the administration. It is the only way to guarantee transparency regarding where the $973 million dollars is going. Then we could better see how this budget is helping our students prepare for college and what is being done to help raise our students’ scores in math and science for example.”
Teacher shortage and retention
Although teacher shortage concerns are a nation-wide problem, Jersey City residents have asked how the city can combat this problem when nearby districts are offering better pay and better benefits.
Isnel Sanon: In a debate moderated by the Hudson Media Group, Sanon said that schools need to be renovated, including teachers lounges, as a way to let them know that “we [are] here for them.”
Ashan Nawaz: Having missed the debate, Nawaz’s position on the matter is unclear, though he has said before that he believes in supporting teachers.
Noemi Velazquez: During the debate, Velazquez said that instead of bringing in new teachers, she believes that the focus should be on retaining current teachers because training new teachers takes money and time that cannot be afforded at this time.
Afaf Muhammad: In the same debate, Muhammad said that the board should look into substitute teachers and aides to fill in the gaps for teachers. The expectation would be that these substitute and aides would become de-facto full-time teachers who could be in a classroom by themselves.
Christopher Tisdale: Like Velazquez, Tisdale’s approach is more fiscally conservative, questioning the raising of salaries for teachers. “If you increase their salaries, what is that going to do to the Jersey City resident taxes” he asked during the debate.
Doris Toni Ervin: To combat this problem, Ervin said she wants better incentives, “like competitive sign on bonuses and salaries.” Additionally, she wants to recruit from within the district, by encouraging “teacher assistance and paraprofessionals to return to school for their degree in education, support education tuition incentives and promote the alternate route education program at our local colleges”
Kenny Reyes: Reyes, having previously said that anything relating to teachers and budget cuts was off the table, advocated for higher starting pay as an incentive, saying, “We want to make sure that entry level teachers have a great, livable wage when they start their career and we want them to stay in Jersey City because it offers a great ecosystem for their careers.”
Alexander Hamilton: In a three-part response, Hamilton said that “1) Teachers need to know that they will be valued by our district… 2) The current step system (when teachers get raises) takes far too long for a teacher’s salary to actually increase to a meaningful amount… 3) When we renegotiate the teachers’ contract next year we must even out the pay scale so that teachers can start with a higher salary and receive better raises as they remain in the district.” He believes that with competitive salaries and consistent pay raises, teachers will not only want to join the district, but stay.
Low test scores and the pandemic
Constituents have also expressed concern about low test scores, which often lead to lower graduation rates.
Isnel Sanon: In addition to going to the teachers to ask them what they need, Sanon takes a different approach to helping students, saying “Kids should be able to go to schools without having to have [CBD] stores nearby.” He elaborated by saying he thinks students can go in and get whatever they want and then miss out on the curriculum being taught. He would advocate for stores like these to be placed out of the way of schools.
Ashan Nawaz: Nawaz has not clarified his position on how to help the students but has said that he believes in his own plan “CCRISP” (College and Career Readiness, Innovation, Stability and Procurement).
Noemi Velazquez: “One size does not fit all” said Velazquez, adding that while the schools teach the standards that are expected of students, the schools also need to provide students state of the art equipment through the budget to ensure they can meet those standards.
Afaf Muhammad: Citing her work with Assemblywoman Angela McKnight’s program to support teachers, Muhammad said she wanted to expand on community schools, which bring in outside non-educators to share their knowledge and assist in the classroom. Muhammad previously helped some of the local public schools through “meditation and reading techniques,” and she expects others can bring in their own skill sets to help students succeed.
Christopher Tisdale: Stating that he believes standardized testing is just a multimillion-dollar industry that pits students against each other without validity, Tisdale said during the HMG debate, “If the district is going to push for raising test scores,” then we need to support teachers and ask “what can we do for you to get your students what they need?”
Doris Toni Ervin: In a written statement, Ervin told JCT, “I will insist on accountability from the administration to improve education in Jersey City,” and added, “Also in the middle and high school years be introduced to our local colleges and trade schools through school fairs and open house. It is up to JC BOE to ensure fiscally responsible academic objectives and policies are developed, measured, and addressed to achieve academic improvement for our children.” Because the pandemic put a new strain on students, Ervin, an educator herself, said she wants the Board to “focus on ensuring a safer and healthier learning environment providing adequate emotional and social support for our children and teachers.”
Kenny Reyes: In the Hudson Media Group debate, Reyes said the focus of the board would be working directly with Superintendent Norma Fernandez to directly support teachers and students, but did not clarify what kind of support would be provided.
Alexander Hamilton: When asked by user “u/jcskunk” what could be done to help student performance in math and science, where students tend to receive low test scores, Hamilton responded that one of the main causes was the environment and a lack of resources, asking, “How can you excel at a subject like science if you don’t have proper lab space or equipment?” He acknowledged that the pandemic had also created setbacks in learning but said schools were working on this issue. However, he did not elaborate further on how students were being supported to meet academic standards.