The Jersey City Council expressed being perplexed and frustrated last night after board of education officials didn’t attend a special budget hearing called specifically to discuss school funding.
“This morning, I received a phone call from [BOE President] Sudhan Thomas informing me that their counsel had instructed them or advised them not to participate in the budget hearing,” explained Council President Rolando Lavarro.
In a copy of the May 29th email, sent at 10:13 a.m. from Thomas to Lavarro, he explains that counsel has said district officials should not attend in order to maintain their independence from the city government.
“We are an independent, autonomous public body elected by the same Jersey City residents who elect the City council. We are being advised to maintain the separation and distinction of powers which were put in place for Type 2 districts such as Jersey City few years ago to avoid any of the exact charges that led to state control 30 years ago,” he wrote.
“Our appearance in a department type budget hearing will create a wrong precedent and give out the wrong optics per Board Counsel.”
Thomas continued that the BOE already has a legislative committee that meets with Mayor Steven Fulop and three council members, so that appointing council members to the BOE would not only be unnecessary, but “a violation of the law.”
While no formal vote was taken on the matter, the council also gave consideration on appointing Solomon, Councilwoman-at-Large Joyce Watterman and Ward B Councilwoman Mira Prinz-Arey as liaisons to the BOE.
Several council members expressed dismay over the fact that the BOE did not come to plead their case in person, particularly since they had not made their financial asks specific enough, nor did they point to any specifics in their budget for the council to familiarize themselves with.
“It’s difficult for us to figure out what to do … when we’re really not familiar with their budget. As they said, they’re separate, autonomous, how do we know what their budget is?,” said Ward A Councilwoman Denise Ridley.
“Simply said: until they come and they explain things to us, it’s senseless. We have to tell them to come here, sit down with us and let’s talk,” added Ward C Councilman Rich Boggiano.
At several points during the meeting, Ward D Councilman Michael Yun was critical of the BOE for not raising the tax levy higher, a frequent point made by members of Jersey City Together, who had several members sitting in the crowd.
At one point during the 50-minute or so hearing, this led to Lavarro telling Yun to tone down the rhetoric a bit.
“Let’s not play to the crowd. This is a council caucus, and while I respect everyone for being here, this is a budget hearing for the council so let’s have a conversation among ourselves around this,” he said.
Nevertheless, Yun seemed undeterred, continuing to push forward a discussion about how the payroll tax and payment of lieu in taxes (PILOT) agreements could yield very favorable results for the BOE.
As he said during a rally calling for no layoffs in the school district last week, Ward E Councilman James Solomon noted that the city receives about $120 million a year in tax abatements and about $30 million could be allocated to the public schools.
Nevertheless, he kept up the trend of chiding district officials for skipping out on last night’s hearing at City Hall.
“They literally passed a resolution asking us for money and they haven’t told us how much do you want, what are you gonna do. If I come out and ask you for money, right, are you gonna say ‘you have to come to me.’ Michael give me money, but no, you have to come to me,” Solomon stated.
” … Just a philosophical question we should discuss amongst ourselves: what is our role, what is our responsibility here? Not as this council, but as a city, we’ve taken major revenue that’s come in and used it to fund our budget. And now the state set up the system, not us, but the city takes it all instead of giving it to the schools. But that doesn’t mean that we as a city council can’t work to change that.”
The hearing streamed live on our Facebook page and can be viewed below: