Jersey City Together held a virtual forum last night to discuss plans related to drinkable water, transparency, and sustained funding at the board of education.
Community leader Nancy Pokler said their demands include full staffing of the schools including mental health services, water infrastructure remediation by the end of 2022 as pledged by the city and the Municipal Utilities Authority (MUA), more transparency and accountability, along with a fully funded budget.
“Many of the decision makers in Jersey City continue to hide behind masks by resisting the call to for openness, transparency, and accountability,” Jersey City Together leader Rev. Dr. Alonso Perry added.
He said the New Jersey Constitution was amended in 1875 to provide for the “maintenance and support of an efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all children in the state between the ages of 5 and 18.”
“The graduating class of 2021 … did not benefit from a fully-funded school district. Drinkable water was not readily available for students. The school buildings were and to an extent are still decrepit and dilapidated,” added Danielle Walker.
She also noted the process to fix the water pipes in the schools began in 2019 as a result of their advocacy.
Hudson Partnership CMO CEO Robyn Gorman spoke with Acting Superintendent Dr. Norma Fernandez and Board of Education President Gerald Lyons on these pressing issues.
“In the last two years of the COVID pandemic, the loss, grief, and isolation experienced by young people have led to a demonstrable uptick in the need for mental health services,” Gorman said.
“This not the time to short-change our children on much-needed services in the schools. Dr. Fernandez, will you provide a clear accounting for each school of the full-time staffing by type of staff position to address the needs of all students including mental health?”
Fernandez replied in the affirmative, with Lyons doing the same afterwards.
“Yes, I will. The onset of the pandemic and social media has put additional stress on our students as well as the lack of resources,” said Fernandez.
“We are now working to changes to our policy on personnel issues to address some of the staffing concerns,” replied Lyons.
Lyons noted accounting for part-time, per diem, and consulting staff is a serious issue.
“The board’s goal is to ensure full staffing throughout the district,” he added.
Resignations and retirements hurt this, Lyons also noted, and to cope with this, he he met with the teacher’s union representative and helped negotiate a salary increase.
Another JC Together activist, Jim Nelson, noted that water is scarce in the schools, leaving many students with headaches due to dehydration.
“Nurses have asked teachers to not send students to their office for water,” he stated, also pointing out that many plastic water bottles and coolers have been sent up in lieu of fountains.
“The ad hoc measures cannot compare with fixing the infrastructure. Our children need water. Hydration is essential for health and effective learning. Dehydration exacerbates behavior issues.”
He noted the progress made on many schools with 350 fountains having been installed since 2019 districtwide, while other schools are using filters.
“Yet students at most schools have either to bring their own water from home or rely on school-provided bottles. Dr. Fernandez, will you commit to working with the JCMUA to complete drinking water remediation at all schools and report on progress?,” he asked.
“Yes, I do, Mr. Nelson. We are all working towards getting it resolved. Unfortunately, the pandemic has slowed down, um the process in terms of staff becoming ill, the availability of supplies,” Fernandez explained
She said starting at their next BOE meeting, there will be a monthly update on the work on water fountains.
Nelson asked Lyons the same question and got a similar response.
“I’ve been fighting for the water issue since I first got on the school board in 2012,” Lyons said.
“We’re getting there. I’m hopeful, and I’ll do whatever I can to get this done by the end of 2022.”
Nelson added that the JC MUA was invited to participate but declined.
Yet another JC Together member, Meghan Howard Noveck, said that the district needs to do better at providing public information.
“Information is shared inconsistently across schools. Each school has a website but what information is included is scattershot. This haphazard approach breeds inequity.
She asked Fernandez if she would commit to improving transparency and schools building open relationships.
“Our goal is to continue to improve communications. We’re also working on keeping up the website,” Fernandez answered, noting the upgrades would take a few weeks to a month.
Similarly, Lyons said he answers every email he receives and often meets with community advocates.
Furthermore, Bridget D’Souza noted the Jersey City BOE received $261 million in federal aid in total that had time limits attached to it.
$65 million has already been spent, with over $28 million used on technology and $17 million on repairs, along with busing, health issues, and coping with the pandemic.
She noted students did not have enough chrome books and the schools needed fixing prior to COVID.
D’Souza blamed the New Jersey Schools Development Authority “which failed year after year to maintain our buildings which is its mandate.”
“There is $100 million left and it should go to host summer programs to make up for learning, buy more equipment, and make repairs,” D’Souza asserted.
“However, that funding was not sustainable and State Aid funding is drying up. It means our school levy must go up,” claiming that their school tax rate is the 49th lowest in New Jersey.
Later, Fernandez said they will continue to put federal grant dollars back into classrooms, along with presenting a full funded budget for the second year in a row, though said fully staffing the district wasn’t as easy.
“There’s a national decrease in the number of individuals going into education,” she said.
“Are you committed to driving the budget process with the goal of fully funding the budget with the necessary school levy increases?,” Corley asked Lyons.
“Yes, I’m committed to that. I know how important it is for us to get that funding done.”