After a great debate that included several amendments, the Jersey City Board of Education narrowly approved an $814,051,708 preliminary budget, with the tax levy dropping from $100 million to $85 million and the annual tax increase down to $996 instead of $1,168.
By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County View
The preliminary budget passed 5-4, with Board President Mussab Ali, along with Trustees Lorenzo Richardson, Gina Verdibello, Marilyn Roman, and Gerald Lyons voting yes.
However, Vice President Lekendrick Shaw joined Trustees Alexander Hamilton, Joan Terrell-Paige, and Noemi Velazquez in voting against the measure.
Reaching common ground wasn’t easy, as it took the board five tries before the majority finally agreed on the budget.
School Business Administrator Regina Robinson explained that they scaled down their investments into new programs from $35 million to $13.4 million by cutting technology-related investments that were discussed on Monday.
That alone cut the district’s overall shortfall to $139,650,000 instead of $153 million.
“We need to let the city decide on whether they meet their moral and financial obligations to the 30,000 children in our schools,” Superintendent Franklin Walker said regarding the budget.
Councilman-a- Large Rolando Lavarro called in during the public portion and noted he attended Jersey City Together’s action last week calling for a fully funded budget.
“I pledge my support to the goals of the campaign … We have to take this bull by the horns and figure a way out of this together,” he said.
Lavarro also advocated for a special committee of officials from the city and the board of education, including himself and other members of the council, to avoid even the appearance of any types of backroom deals.
Ali liked the idea of a meeting of the minds between the city and school board electeds and made plans to set up such a special committee at the end of the meeting.
During the dozens of public comments at the four-and-a-half hour meeting, many expressed frustration about the current set of circumstances – many again arguing that fully funding the budget with a tax increase was the only way to go at this point.
“There is a devastating lack of leadership on the board … “They [the students] deserve so much more than you have shown thus far,” said Jersey City Together member and education activist Brigid D’Souza.
She also said board members who gave reasons not to raise taxes on Monday was meandering, confusing, and disconnected from their mandate of educating children.
“You have shown you care more about the value of your own home than you do the needs of our kids and you’re concerned about real estate than what will happen if our kids don’t get a fully funded budget,” added Nancy Pokler, another JC Together member.
Darryl Lucas was even more blunt, calling the arguments against a tax increase “fallacious and asinine.”
Hamilton said this budget looked like another “band-aid fix” and also agreed with Lavarro’s suggestion to get school board and city officials on the same page.
However, Romano wasn’t so sure if that would be the best course of action.
“You never get anything done when you have 19 people in the room. We did that once before with [former Superintendent of Schools] Dr. [Marcia] Lyles and we got nowhere.”
She also criticized the city for spending big money on items such as bike lanes and outdoor dining.
“No one thinks about the long-term effect of a good education on a child in this district,” Roman added said.
To that end, Richardson accused the city of not collecting the payroll tax effectively. He wanted to know which companies were delinquent on payments and said the process should be audited.
He also claimed to have followed up on tax specifics from the city but was yet to receive a response.
Ali also took offense to the city spokeswoman saying earlier this week that wasteful practices had left the BOE in their current predicament.
“It’s a shame that the people in City Hall call our budget quote ‘full of waste practices’ when we make a $4 million investment into new textbooks because the ones that we have are 10 years old, and falling apart while they spent six-and-a-half million repaving a pedestrian plaza,” Ali said.
“You can’t just be investing in luxury goods as a city and turn around and says it’s wasteful spending for us to be hiring guidance counselors. It’s shameful really.”
He also reiterated two points from Monday: one being that the amount of money the school district will receive from President Joe Biden’s (D) American Rescue Plan, where the City of Jersey City netted $145,818,453.10, remains unclear.
The second being that the amount of funding from the payroll tax: while they’ve received an $86 million committed, only $65 million could be certified for now.
“We’re confident those funds are coming to this district … We want to hold the city accountable to these dollars,” Ali said.
The final board of education budget likely won’t receive a vote until some time in May.