The 1st Jersey City Board of Education debate of this election cycle featured both five-person slates coming out swinging on topics that included super PAC money, fiscal responsibility, the school district’s next superintendent and much more.
The debate, which was hosted by the Hudson County Democratic Organization Black Caucus and lasted for about an hour and 40 minutes, started off simple enough, with each candidate introducing themselves.
Nine of the 13 candidates in the race attended, with Trustees Gina Verdibello and Gerry Lyons, as well as Darwin Ona – all from the Education Matters ticket – and Sonia Cintron absent.
Although the candidates agreed on the majority of the questions early on, such as making sure African-American studies remained part of the public schools curriculum, it didn’t take long before the Change for Children team began to get aggravated with Sudhan Thomas – the board president and also a part of the teachers union-backed ticket.
“Mr. Thomas, I think you are the last person to call somebody’s finances or financial decisions in question. You are the same person who left the board of education meeting when your car was being repossessed,” began Change for Children team member Asheenia Johnson.
“You’re the same person that has been at the helm of the school board while in this financial crisis and has not been able to produce any viable ideas or insight on how to get out of it … who took a $77,000 check and deposited into a completely different bank and wrote [the checks] to cash yourself.”
Thomas, who is involved in a lawsuit stemming from his time as acting director at the Jersey City Employment and Training Program, had been needling the opposition slate over the fact that they are being supported by a super PAC, Fairer NJ, largely supported by the LeFrak Organization.
The suit originated over the allegation that he wrote three checks out to cash totaling $16,500.
Despite being called out on the carpet, he didn’t lose his composure or even entertain any of the allegations put forth by Johnson.
“We have a plaintiff who is suing the City of Jersey City to try and stop the payroll tax. This plaintiff, a friend of mine sitting over there, is invested $500,000 into this race and I’m interested in why they’re doing that,” Thomas stated.
” … They can do all the fugazi stuff, but this is about the local elections. We have a plaintiff there who’s committed to raising $500,000 and his slate is fueled by that money. So it doesn’t add up. It’s easy to distract and throw stuff, it’s fine, but the bottom line is why is Jeremy Farrell and LeFrak funding this school board slate.”
According to an August 20th filing with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, Fairer NJ plans to fundraise $400,000 and spend $250,000 on election-related activity this year.
L-Mani Viney, a retired Jersey City educator, exclaimed that it “scared the daylights out of him” that a developer was so intimately involved in a school board race.
Anthony Sharperson, a part of the Change for Children team seeking a one-year term, responded that he and his running mates are simply trying to compete on a level playing field and are not going to be beholden to anyone if elected.
“The way I look at it, when I decided to run on this ticket, I said ‘hey, I’m gonna take this money from this rich man and bring it back to my community.’ I own a business right on MLK [Boulevard] where people are scared to walk, where people are scared to live,” he said.
” … Again, would I betray that? Never. Never. But again, ask the bigger question: how did we have to get to this point where you have to spend that much money to win an election … they are impacted by a PAC on the other side as well.”
Garden State Forward, the super PAC run by the New Jersey Education Association, is one of the most active political entities in the state and has routinely been a big supporter of the BOE slates backed by the Jersey City Education Association.
Another audience question that sparked some impassioned responses from the panel came from resident and activist Bruce Alston, asking if the candidates supported Acting Superintendent Dr. Franklin Walker or a national search.
Alston noted that he felt the process in which Dr. Marcia Lyles, the previous superintendent, was removed from the schools was disrespectful and didn’t believe that Walker deserved a similar treatment.
“I believe in due diligence and I believe if we do our due diligence, that Dr. Walker would still rise to the top,” said Tara Stafford, an independent candidate on the ballot who is also the daughter of late former Superintendent Dr. Charles Epps.
Just about everyone on the panel seemed to echo that sentiment.
“I don’t want to ever see anyone disrespected like Dr. Lyles was, as you mentioned earlier, I still think we need to do our due diligence and I think he would welcome that process. But as of now, yes, we absolutely support him as a team,” Change for Children’s Alexander Hamilton said.
“He is Jersey City personified.”
Thomas, who was instrumental in Lyles being removed from her post, said that the vote to remove Lyles had to be contextualized to include when her contract was renewed by default in December 2015.
“The board was on the path of not wanting to renew her and the majority of the board members felt that they were duped, they were jumped, and that contract was extended by a process that was not straightforward,” the board president explained.
“For the record: there is no contract that the Jersey City Board of Ed and Dr. Lyles have signed. There was only one contract which was signed [in] 2012 … so I think one has to see that in the continuity of what happened in ’15.”
He also called Dr. Walker an “amazing man” and said that he’s “leading the district very effectively.”
Noemi Velasquez, another Change for Children member, reiterated the group’s message that they have no plans to bring back Lyles or former assistant superintendent/state monitor Cathy Coyle, though had no problem she was friends with both of them.
“I’m a friend of both Dr. Lyles and Cathy Coyle. It’s been said in many meetings and I want you to know that we have no intentions of bringing back anyone. However, in terms of friendship, that’s something that no one should prohibit you from cultivating.”
BOE Trustee Lekendrick Shaw, from the Education Matters faction, said that he won’t support, nor could he envision, a scenario where Lyles returned as the head of the Jersey City Public Schools.
“Being on the board, I’ve had the fortune of being able to hear what the climate was: ‘oh, we couldn’t do that. No, Lyles would never do that, no we can’t do that.’ So we’re getting past the culture of not being able to do things.”
While the debate clearly had it’s fiery moments, candidates agreed on several topics such as fighting to keep after school and extracurricular activities in tact, working with the New Jersey Schools Development Authority to build new schools and doing whatever they could to balance out school aid to the district from Trenton.
The majority of the debate streamed live on our Facebook page and can be viewed below: