After police officers ejected a handful of angry audience members for speaking out of turn, the Jersey City Council voted to okay a November school board referendum after a marathon meeting that ran for over five hours.
“That sounds to me like ‘if we have the power to appoint the board of education we can control them.’ How is the mayor’s track record for appointments?,” local educator Kristen Zadroga Hart asked the council, referencing the Friday announcement of a potential board of education ballot question.
She continued that this administration has seen five different recreation directors in five years, former Chief of Staff Muhammed Akil resign in disgrace, and Sudhan Thomas – a former BOE president and Jersey City Employment and Training Program director – arrested for embezzlement and bribery.
“Is this dysfunctional enough for you?,” she questioned.
Last week, Mayor Steven Fulop and a few council members referred to the BOE as “a national embarrassment” in light of Thomas being charged in two separate cases, five members resigning in the past three years and Trustee Joan Terrell-Paige receiving national attention for making remarks many deemed “anti-Semitic.”
They stressed the importance of City Hall being able to have an opportunity to fix the “chaos” that includes corruption and multi-million dollar budget deficits.
However, almost all of the 50 or so speakers who took the podium didn’t see it that way, expressing disappointment that the public only had one opportunity to weigh in on this.
“There’s no plan: how can you get up there and deal with absolutes? ‘We will fix it.’ One of the quotes says ‘we will fix the school system,’ but you haven’t voiced any plan. You want to get the vote, but you don’t have a plan,” expressed Terrance Matthews, another local educator.
“I want to lose weight: I ate three cookies and a coke today – it’s not working that way,” he said to a wave of laughter.
Lorenzo Richardson, Thomas’ successor as school board president, noted that the board member resignations referenced were for health or personal reasons, that his predecessors legal troubles, as well as Terrell-Paige’s remarks (which he reiterated were made in her capacity as a private citizen) had nothing to do with the business at the public schools.
“The budget gap exists because the state is cutting money that the city should be giving us. JCETP had all of the mayor’s nine board members resign in less than half the time the [BOE] board members [resigned] for other reasons. And it was described as chaotic, where even a minister on the board was cursed out.”
While speaker after speaker spoke out against the need for a ballot question to decide on an appointed or elected board, Phil Arivo was the sole audience member to say he was in favor of letting the people decide.
“Elections aren’t always perfect: Donald Trump was elected, so elections aren’t always perfect,” adding that he agreed with Ward E Councilman James Solomon’s opinion piece published yesterday expressing that this was the best way to work towards a solution.
During the vote, Ward C Councilman Rich Boggiano received a roaring ovation from the crowd after voting against the measure.
“I have complete faith in them and that things are going to change and on that matter, I vote no,” Boggiano said.
However, the crowd grew restless as others began to vote in favor of the referendum, even when Ward C Councilman Michael Yun and Ward E Councilman James Solomon, neither of whom ran with Fulop in 2017, explained their votes in detail.
“When we set up the committee, we’re going to make sure that every stakeholder’s involved. We’re going to make sure that we appoint an independent persons to [help] children in our schools,” Yun said.
Solomon noted that he is still committed to allocating a significant amount of money the city receives from abatements towards the public schools, also acknowledging, that many, including the mayor, erred in putting their trust in Thomas.
“I think that the city has a moral obligation to use the abatement money that it takes and put it towards the schools. $30 million: last year I fought for it in the budget cycle, we’re going to fight for it again, regardless of what happens here,” he explained.
” … Everyone is correct in saying that Mayor Fulop bears responsibility for enabling Sudhan Thomas in this city. Everybody is 100 percent correct, okay, and he needs to own up to that … Now there are folks who came up to this podium and waved their finger at the mayor, right, who actively supported Sudhan Thomas to be on the board of education.”
The Downton councilman continued that while people may not have known Thomas had engaged in alleged criminal activity, they knew he was unethical and “didn’t belong in a position to harm the children of this city.”
Fulop endorsed Thomas in 2016, with the Jersey City Education Association backing him in 2016 and 2019.
By the time Ward F Councilman Jermaine Robinson was up to vote, things had degenerated to a total debacle, with people routinely yelling out, accusing the council of being “rubber stamps” before JCEA President Ron Greco stormed the podium after he was called out for supporting Thomas’ re-election.
“Mayor Fulop caused all this: the white man who won’t let Franklin Walker have a chance! You’re all rubber stamps! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves! … You kiss Fulop’s backside! You don’t want to give Franklin Walker a chance! You’re all phonies!,” Greco screamed as two officer began to lead him out of the council chambers.
“Pigs. Pigs! Bigoted, bigoted,” Greco muttered as police walked him out the door.
Meanwhile, things hadn’t calmed much on the dais as Robinson got into a heated back and forth with another resident, appearing to challenge him to a fight.
“You can see me outside: you can see me outside. You ain’t gotta wait until 2021. All that tough guy s*** don’t work here,” Robinson exclaimed, before Council President Joyce Watterman called for order.
A handful of other people were asked to leave the council chambers by police around this time, shortly before the vote was finally completed.
The measure passed 7-1(1), with Boggiano voting no and Councilman-at-Large Rolando Lavarro abstaining.
In a Facebook post, Robinson apologized for losing his cool.
“Last night’s council meeting became out of control and I am sincerely apologetic for my response in the heat of the moment. As an elected official, I should remain calm and collected even when faced with hostility. And last night, I did not. For that, I sincerely apologize,” he wrote.
In a phone interview this morning, Fulop repeated that the whole point of an accounted board would allow the mayor and council to be held accountable for crises at the school district, also answering some criticisms about Thomas.
“Sudhan was appointed, but he was also elected. Even after he was removed from his appointed position, he was able to sit in his elected position for another six months,” Fulop began.
“We want to give people a choice on who they want to hold accountable … there could be no referendum if the board of ed acts responsibly. It’s easier to hold me accountable because people are more familiar with who the mayor and the council are … We fixed our budget, the police department, and the fire department. Not saying the city’s perfect, but we’ve successfully taken on a number of difficult situations before.”
According to Corporation Council Peter Baker, if the the voters decide to switch to an appointed board, current school trustee terms will expire on June 30th, 2021 and appointed terms will begin the following day.
He also noted that if approved, Jersey City can not have a BOE referendum for another four years.
Video of about two dozen different public speakers streamed live on our Facebook page and can be viewed below: