Jersey City Board of Education hosts special meeting to discuss upcoming budget

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The Jersey City Board of Education hosted a special meeting yesterday to discuss their upcoming budget, with many speakers pushing for a fully funded budget even if it comes with a tax increase.

By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County View

The budget hearing comes just over a week after the state cut the Jersey City Public School funding by $71 million, though some of that will be offset by $48.3 million in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.

“Underfunding has established inequities in our school, impacted the progress and safety of our kids, impacted our ability to handle this pandemic, and hindered our ability to reopen our schools,” said Nancy Pokler who identified as a member of Jersey City Together.

“I’m hoping that at this time this school funding hot potato game will finally be called out and that our leaders of our Board of Education will put all political aspirations and pressures aside in order to establish ownership over the future of our schools. Our local funding responsibility shouldn’t be overlooked.”

Pokler further stated that they must maintain a commitment to all school employees, also noting that the budget should be based on equity and needs, not politics.

Evelyn Chan said she wanted to “voice support for a fully-funded budget, with 61 percent of the students in the district eligible for free and reduced lunch, we must plan for sustainable funding.”

“Our children will need support beyond temporary emergency bandaids. Please allow Superintendent Walker to do more with more.”

Additionally, Dana Patton was one of several parents who said she was willing to see an increase in school taxes to support a budget that doesn’t include staff cuts.

“Fully fund the budget this year,” began another member of Jersey City Together, Brigid D’Souza – also a longtime education activist.

“We were still underfunded which speaks to the larger hole we’re in … Please keep in mind next year’s budget as well. We need to invest locally … I don’t want us to lose sight of the long-term horizon.”

D’Souza also pointed out that Walker was instrumental in making sure that an equitable budget was introduced and passed last year, as well as mentioning that cuts from the state will only get worse – next year’s cuts are currently projected at $100 million.

Meghan Howard Noveck, yet another parent leader with Jersey City Together, said the district must make a “sustainable, long-term investment in the children of Jersey City.”

“Invest long enough to bear fruit,” she said, noting there were holes in the school budget long before the COVID-19 pandemic. “We must stop thinking Jersey City schools can do more with less Do more with more.”

“We’re talking about a budget that outlasts us,” Superintendent Franklin Walker said regarding the budget he presented. “It’s time we stop taking shortcuts.”

“Children born into poverty have many borders to overcome to become academically successful,” Walker said. He noted there were barriers “long before the pandemic.”

Walker said they want to ensure equitable learning conditions in all schools.

“I am committed to educating students for greatness by making them academically competitive,” he said.

“A multi-tier support system is key to student wellness,” Walker added, arguing the school district needs to fund social services to help students with non-academic problems.

“Community schools in the district can become vital centers of community life where we can mobilize students’ families and neighborhoods.”

He also said community schools are making progress in helping students and their families cope with shootings, drug addiction, incarceration, severe mental health problems, racial injustice, and profoundly unequal societies.

Walker explained they are especially working hard on providing mental health services and English as a second language to students.

He also lamented that a “high percentage of dropouts and those who fall below are English language learners.”

“We need to expand social services to provide appropriate resources and to remove obstacles to consistent attendance.”

Board President Mussab Ali added that the district is investing in trauma-sensitive school training, not that the district will invest in eyeglasses for students who need them, along with allocating funding for special education, career programs, arts, and music.

“This board is grounded in the understanding our responsibility doesn’t end at schoolhouse gates. Our investment reflects that. When the eviction moratorium ends, many of our children will face housing insecurity.”

Thus, they might look to provide some form of rental assistance, as the city has done.

“We want to invest in our schools and we want an environment where children thrive and are able to compete and feel safe in school. We want to support our schools and be aware of fiscal challenges,” Vice President Lekendrick Shaw added.

“I’m a big fan of fully funding our schools related to social workers, music, arts, and of course social and emotional support,” began Trustee Lorenzo Richardson.

He also expressed disappointment in the ongoing cuts from the state given that costs are always on the rise, explaining that everyone needs to get involved on the local level to keep their schools moving in the right direction.

“This is not just the responsibility of the people who work at the board and the board members. It is the responsibility of every citizen in this city,” Richardson exclaimed.

He also said elected officials for Jersey City need to pitch in and help as well our school district is underfunded and school children are losing out.

“The mayor needs to come and speak with us. They gave us a budget from the employer’s tax supposed to be $86 million. It’s only $65 million dollars,” he continued.

“Where does the rest of the money come from? We can’t get it out of the air. We need to sit down and make some decisions here.”

Trustee Alexander Hamilton then offered praise for Walker.

“Superintendent Walker was chosen for this because of his competency. I don’t want to say no to anything he wants! I wish we would see the same commitment from people in the city, in the county, and the state,” Hamilton said.

“We’re the red-headed stepchild around here. I don’t understand why that is. I want to work closer with the city to resolve that issue. This is a lifetime fix we really need to work on.”

The next BOE meeting is a March 15th caucus, with the possibility of a preliminary school budget being adopted on the 17th.