Op-Ed: Jersey City Councilman Solomon explains support for school board referendum

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In an editorial, Jersey City Ward E Councilman James Solomon explains why he feels the board of education selection process, whether trustees should be elected or appointed, should be left up to the voters this fall.

A New York Times article described the Jersey City school district as riven “by political
patronage…fiscal irregularities, [and] indifference to school repair.” The article’s date: October 5th, 1989.

Not nearly enough has changed in our public schools over the past thirty years.

This past school year was thrown into chaos by multiple school board member resignations,
massive and massively-mismanaged educator layoffs, threats to unload crucial school property in murky real estate deals, and a joint effort by the school district’s elected leadership and the Mayor’s office to fight transfer of abatement money from the City to the school district.

Simply put: the governance of our school district must improve drastically and quickly.

Last Friday, Mayor Fulop tweeted out a bombshell: announcing intent to take responsibility for Jersey City’s school district, he asked residents to vote this coming November on allowing him to appoint our Board of Education.

Today, the Council will vote on whether Jersey’s City’s citizens get to make that decision.

I plan to vote “yes” to giving the people of Jersey City the choice, for one primary reason: putting the question to a vote forces an immediate, public reckoning on the state of our schools.

It will force both the Mayor and the elected school board to make a transparent case to the voters for why and how they should govern the most important institution in our city.

Make no mistake: neither party has lived up to their responsibilities to date.

Here’s a short list of the challenges our schools face over the next five years: a 25% cut in the district’s budget in the next five year with the loss of over $170M in state aid; building the infrastructure to accommodate the students that tens of thousands of new housing units will bring; dozens of schools still unable to use their drinking water due to lead poisoning.

All of these in addition to the ever-persistent challenge of improving student achievement and well-being. What is the Mayor’s plan? What is the Board of Education’s plan? Continuing on with the status quo will not solve these problems.

Overcoming these problems will require competency, courage, and community support.

Over the next year, the Mayor and the elected Board of Education each must prove to the voters that they can deliver change.

Neither “mayoral control” nor an elected school board is a panacea that will solve the problems in our schools.

However, when used effectively, systems of “mayoral control” have delivered results for students.

The Center for American Progress’ 2013 report studied the effects of “mayoral control” in 11 cities – including New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia, –
concluding:

“Over a 15-year period, mayoral-control districts were positively associated with investment in teaching staff, more spending on instruction, smaller student-teacher ratios, a greater percentage of resources allocated for K-12 student support…Consequently, several mayoral-led districts showed academic improvement over time.”

Such improvement occurs because voters know who to hold accountable for failure and who to reward for success.

Elected school boards often swing wildly between different strategies as has happened in Jersey City over the past five years.

The President of the Bank Street Education College explains: “[With] people elected to school boards…turnover is often high, meaning that each election can result in major swings in board policies. Often those swings are in direct reaction to whatever the last superintendent or the current superintendent just implemented.”

Keep in mind the track record of recent Board of Education elections in Jersey City since
unlimited SuperPAC spending began in 2013 as a result of the Citizens United decision: Not a single independent candidate has won a school board seat without the backing of a giant
SuperPAC. Not a single one.

Finally, New Jersey state law restricts Jersey City’s choice to either an elected or Mayorally
appointed Board of Education.

Over the next six months, alternative ideas should be considered and potentially brought to Trenton prior to August 2020, the last date at which the referendum can be cancelled. A timeline will force all parties to move with speed.

The Mayor should be accountable for Jersey City schools. So should the Board of Education,
the City Council, and the teachers’ union; so should every power player who has taken control of our kids’ futures in the past.

I will insist on that accountability in the coming months by asking both the Mayor and the Board to make a new case to Jersey City voters for why they deserve our trust, and I invite you to do the same. Under democratic pressure, this referendum can throw fierce light on our schools’ and City’s needs.

James Solomon
Jersey City Ward E Councilman

1 COMMENT

  1. Does anybody really know much of anything about the people who run for school board? Does anybody know who is really calling the shots? At least handing this over to the mayor would create some accountability.

    As it stands, in JC there are a school board members who owe their positions to the teachers Union or to developers, bringing those agendas to their decisions. That can’t be a good thing.

    Residents blame the mayor for problems in the schools anyway. Mayoral candidates are asked how they will “fix” the schools. Few voters buy the idea, even if true, that the mayor’s got nothing to do with the schools.

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