Jersey City BOE passes prelim $1B budget, Morris & Barkouch again voted pres. & VP


The Jersey City Board of Education passed a $1,035,721,424 budget with a 2 percent tax increase, as well as the board leadership retaining their posts in a do over from last month, at last night’s special virtual meeting.

By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County View

Acting School Business Administrator Dr. Dennis Frohnapfel presented the 2024-2025 budget and led most of the meeting with the appointments of Dejon Morris as president and Younass Barkouch as vice president in dispute heading into the meeting.

Frohnapfel said the preliminary budget had to be completed by today, therefore a special meeting was necessary after Monday’s caucus was cancelled as the administration hoped the state Department of Education would take swift action regarding the chaos at the February 29th meeting.

“Revenue has gone down by almost 20-and-a-half million dollars,” Frohnapfel noted.

Regular program instruction is 18 percent of the budget and includes salaries for teachers, aides, supplies, and miscellaneous expenses for a total of about $193 million.

“This fully funds the instructional program,” he argued.

The 23 charter schools will be allocated $174.5 million, or about 20.5 percent of the percent, for 6,800 students, while health and other employee benefits are approximately 14.05 percent of the budget at $146.9 million.

Additionally, special education instruction, including teachers and resources is approximately 9.2 percent of the budget at $96.4 million, the total special education budget is about $120 million, health and home instruction are 1.1 percent of the budget for $11.3 million.

The latter program was was cut by roughly $770,000.

Frohnapfel noted that the charter school budget could reach about $200 million when it’s all said and done, as well as that this budget is fully funded, which includes salary and benefits for about 200 open positions in the district.

The budget also proposes a new, four-year agreement with the Jersey City Education Association that comes with a 4.10 percent salary increase.

Frohnapfel also made that the distinction that there is realistically a zero percent school levy tax increase on top of the mandatory two percent since home values went up in the city as a whole.

“Are programs or services being cut or just personnel?” Morris asked.

“There are not cuts from personnel and there are no cuts in program,” Frohnapfel replied.

“Does this present the contractual increase of the staff salaries?” Morris asked.

Frohnapfel said special needs professionals had to be found from outside the district.

“The improvement of instruction and professional development, what is driving the 1.3 percent decrease?” Morris asked, to which Frohnapfel said a grant is funding it.

“But we are cutting back in certain areas?” Morris asked.

“We just don’t have to fund it from the general fund,” Frohnapfel explained.

Morris was also curious about an increase in the general administration and school administration.

“The directors and the secretarial, those are all covered under different agreements. Those were increased because of the negotiations,” Frohnapfel noted.

He added they also like to keep a reserve on hand and Morris was still curious about what led to an increase in maintenance costs.

Frohnapfel said the cost of trash removal, sewage, cleaning, insurance, third party maintenance, and security increased.

“We didn’t get a snapshot of the budget until very recently,” Barkouch argued.

“Is there any reason you didn’t present it to us originally? We could have reviewed it before today,” Morris questioned.

“I sent you whatever I put into the state budget,” Frohnapfel replied.

“We didn’t really have an adequate amount of time to review the items that were in it and to cross-check to make sure we agreed on it,” Morris said.

“We were still tweaking the state budget up until I sent it to you the other day,” Frohnapfel responded, adding that there are many complicated revenue streams and line items had to be aligned, which took time.

Natalia Ioffe, who still presided as president entering the meeting despite the February 29th votes, noted they had received the same information in a different form on March 14th, with this presentation being more comprehensive.

“There is still going to be a tax levy increase because there is that mandatory two percent. It just won’t be anymore,” Barkouch argued.

Frohnapfel repeated that since the overall value of homes in Jersey City has gone up, there won’t be an increase in taxes more than the mandatory 2 percent.

“Obviously, a vote is needed to send this to the county superintendent. We didn’t get it in the time that we should have gotten it. I’d like to motion to closed session so that way we can review the budget documents more as well address previous board issues,” Barkouch said.

“The budget is not an item to be discussed in closed session. We still have to have the public comment on the budget first,” Frohnapfel answered.

“Is it possible to get some sort of extra time before we vote on it?” Barkouch asked.

“It’s the board’s prerogative if they want to go into closed session and discuss an issue,” Board Counsel Ramon Rivera said.

After a brief dialogue, it became apparent that the closed session was to figure out the presidency and vice presidency, not a budget-related item.

“We have to address the elephant in the room, and that’s last board meeting. Those matters deserved to be discussed in closed session so we don’t continue this reputation of dysfunction,” Barkouch explained.

“There was a question of leadership and that’s something that the board members as a group need to uh untangle themselves.”

Barkouch said there are procedural issues that need to be addressed. He motioned to move into closed session.

“In closed session, could we just have you, the superintendent, and the counsel with the board?” Morris asked.

“Yes,” Frohnapfel replied.

“I don’t condone the motion. My answer is no,” Blount said.

It passed 5-4, with Ioffe, Vice President Noemi Velazquez, as well as Trustees George Blount and Alpa Patel voting no.

Despite Ioffe expressing concerns about the public waiting to speak, the board proceeded to have a 90-minute closed session.

Shortly after returning, Barkouch made a motion to remove Vice President Velazquez.

“Whatever the board president is accused of, the fact that the vice president refused or neglected to correct her violations of the bylaws directly makes, directly violates policy,” he said.

“We held a reorganization meeting that violated our bylaws,” Barkouch argued, again referencing that the January board vote was conducted via a written vote versus a verbal one.

Barkouch said that Ioffe recessed the prior meeting without the consent of the board and faulted Velazquez for following her lead. Barkouch said she canceled committee meetings without prior board approval, which is a violation of policy.

“Morris has emailed you numerous times, and you failed to respond, Trustee Ioffe, on any of his requests,” he argued.

Barkouch also touted the efforts of state Senator Raj Mukherji (D-32), who he is an aide for, to keep state funding stable, to which Velazquez said he should not be talking up his boss during a board meeting.

“I disagree with these charges and I do find there is sufficient evidence that Vice President Velazquez was in any violation. I do not find it fair and I hope to see it challenged,” Ioffe declared.

“I’m a little uncomfortable with what I heard. Before you know it someone else will be next,” Blount exclaimed.

Velazquez did not take the assertions from Barkouch lightly.

“I don’t think that Trustee Barkouch could find any concrete evidence of anything that I have failed to do. Can you just imagine Pence correcting Trump? Please,” she exclaimed.

“I was very honest and candid. I never bit my tongue when I thought things were not as I thought they ought to be. It is not my place to publicly humiliate our president. Someone who has failed to follow ethics codes, charged me with stupid codes, is shameful. Shame on you! You’re supposed to be an example for the students. I will not step down.”

Trustee Afaf Muhammad claimed that Velazquez collaborated with the JCEA to have people come to meetings and berate them as “rouge” trustees, which she felt is an ethics violation.

“We should never try to humiliate any board member. We are a team. What I am accusing you of is not hearsay: It is district policy,“ Barkouch interjected.

“I’m not going to go tit for tat with you,” Velazquez answered.

Trustee Paula Jones-Watson said the past couple weeks have created a “disturbing, divided district” that involved one trustee calling another’s employer.

“People don’t do coups at school boards. They don’t do coups at the Supreme Court or at City Hall. People … recognize this is wrong. They’re very angry about this. It shows the dysfunction and corruption,” Patel noted.

“They’ve been asking what they can do as far as holding people accountable. The law will have the way.”

The Jersey City Board of Education voted to remove Velazquez 5-4, with Blount, Patel, Velazquez, and Ioffe voting no.

Barkouch was then nominated for the position and was appointed by the same tally, as was the case for when Ioffe was removed as president and Morris appointed in her place – the exact same series of events that took place last month when only five members stayed.

“Thank you for presenting your charges. I will not be stating my defenses now for sake of time. I certainly do plan to appeal them,” Ioffe said, also noting that it was already 9:47 p.m. and the public had yet to comment.

“All of these violations called out right now seemed to occur after the 29th while … this team was ready to oust us,” Velazquez, also stating that their “coup” violated the law and had to be addressed.

“We agree with that. That’s why as a board we wanted to correct our actions at the next board meeting, which is what we did,” Morris replied.

Muhammad said they approved the firing of a man who said there was a problem with the food and failed to address bullying properly.

“We intend on working with the entire board throughout this process. The public needed to be aware of what we were doing here today,” Morris stated, also committing to working with Superintendent of Schools Dr. Norma Fernandez.

“As the Chief School Administrator, I’m committed to providing students with a thorough and efficient educational experience while operating a fiscally responsible district. I’m committed to working with the board and the newly appointed leaders,” she said.

Blount asked if anything like this every happened before, to which Fernandez said not that she was aware of.

“Just because it didn’t happen before doesn’t mean it’s not happening right now. It’s done,” Morris asserted before finally getting to public comment.

“You have an obligation and responsibility to be accountable, to be transparent, and to be responsible. Be very careful in approving this budget as you have not had enough time to properly review the changes,” stated Sabrina Harrold.

Former Trustee Lorenzo Richardson congratulated Morris and Barkouch on again assuming their leadership posts before noting that he read the budget as having a three percent tax increase as opposed to two.

“This budget is fully funded and does provide the investment, the continued investment in mental health and wellness,” Fernandez said after public comment.

At 10:55 p.m., Morris noted that they needed a vote in before midnight, while Barkouch said the public should been able to review the budget in advance, as well as that their should be a budget committee.

As the six-and-a-half hour meeting wore down, the preliminary budget passed 8-0(1), with Muhammad abstaining.

Before the meeting finally ended, a special counsel contract not to exceed $175/hour for the remainder of the year was approved for Livingston-based law firm Antonelli Kantor Rivera by a vote of 8-0(1), with Muhammad abstaining.

Souder Shabazz & Woolridge, the Newark-based law firm at the heart of Ioffe’s ethics complaint against Morris, failed 4-4(1), with Barkouch abstaining. They were appointed 5-0 on February 29th in the absence of four trustees.

Warning: A non-numeric value encountered in /home/hcvcp/public_html/wp-content/themes/Hudson County View/includes/wp_booster/td_block.php on line 353