Virtual Jersey City BOE candidate forum addresses school district’s ongoing teacher shortage

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A virtual Jersey City Board of Education candidate forum was held by the Infinity Institute PTA, who are concerned with the teacher shortage the district is experiencing.

By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County View

“We wanted to hear what you guys, in particular, all you candidates, would do in regards to the teacher shortage,” said forum moderator Jedd Ehrmann.

Afaf Muhammed, who is running independently, said some qualified people who are substitutes could be better utilized in this situation.

“There’s a lot of African American substitutes that do not get positions they qualify for. It’s absolutely a race game,” she said.

Erika Baez, of the Change for Children ticket, said that while Paterson held 10 job fairs for teachers since this scholastic year started, Jersey City has only held one.

She also noted that while Superintendent of Schools Franklin Walker requested a $5,000 signing bonus for teachers, it was ultimately removed from the budget.

“That left us with no real solutions. And in such a competitive market, we need to have everything on the table,” Baez began.

“There’s no reason why we cannot have teachers in the subject needed teaching the own class and being broadcast so students without a certified teacher can join in on that class. We can’t allow them to fall behind any more than they have.”

She also said out-of-state teachers should be able to transfer easier.

Natalia Ioffe, a member of the Education Matters slate, agreed that there should be more job fairs, also calling for “alternative revenue sources for our never-ending budget shortages … There has not been a network or liaison program with our local colleges.”

To that end, Ioffe noted some parents have ties to St. Peter’s University, New Jersey City University, and Hudson County Community College that aren’t being utilized.

“That could be one of the simplest and fastest ways to address this immediate shortage we’re facing right now,” Ioffe said, suggesting that parents could also facilitate the search and that administrative BOE employees could return to the classroom.

Muhammed chimed in that the teacher shortage issues dates back to the pre-pandemic days in the Jersey City Public Schools.

“Our salaries are much less than other districts … “We do have a lot of lead teachers that have been sent into the classrooms,” Paul Jones Watson, of the Education Matters, slate said.

She added that they could hire recent college graduates as substitute teachers as they complete their certification, as well as that some might want to leave the corporate world to teach.

Doris Ervin, of the Change for Children team, concurred that working with the local colleges would be a good idea. She said there could also be incentives to help repay tuition and ways to support new teachers better.

“We have a lot of resources,” she said.

Younass Barkouch, the third and final member of the Education Matters slate, also agreed with Ioffe’s idea. He proposed that school administrative staff be incentivized to teach.

“The board should create a subcommittee to oversee recruitment,” he suggested, pointing out that Teach for America offers incentives like tuition reimbursement for a Master’s degree.

“A lot of these solutions sound really good. A lot of them seem to take some time. A lot of them are one- to two-year solutions,” Ehrmann said.

He then inquired what short-term solutions the candidates  had.

“We already offer teacher stipends for different things. We could offer them a stipend now,” Baez said.

Ioffe then noted there’s going to be a job fair Saturday, proposing to audit the central office to see who could be spared and quickly placed in a classroom.

Ehrmann said activist Brigid D’Souza disputed Walker’s claim that nearly all faculty positions are filled since many are on medical leave.

Jones Watson said some of the substitute teachers might qualify to be teachers, a well as stating that locals could be incentivized with a home buying program to become teachers.

Barkouch said they need to pay competitive salaries to attract teachers and suggested making an effort to recruit former Jersey City students.

Additionally, Baez said teachers have not felt supported and thus have resigned.

“We’re asking teachers to do a lot of things.”

Ioffe indicated starting salaries are $54,000 a year, so teachers make too much for affordable housing and not enough to live in luxury homes

“You’re neither here nor there. A lot of our teachers are moonlighting, doing second and third jobs just to make ends meet,” she said, noting that even experienced teachers are given few raises.

Barkouch said teachers could potentially get special benefits through the city council for housing or rental assistance. However, he was concerned they could hire poor teachers if they rush.

Ehrmann then asked what the candidates thought about a student vaccination mandate.

“I believe in vaccinations,” Baez said.

Ioffe said only Gov. Phil Murphy (D) could mandate vaccines for children.

“I don’t think anyone should be forced to get a vaccine for their job or their education. I think that should be left as a personal choice,” Muhammed said.

Jones Watson agreed with her and claimed vaccines could induce learning disabilities in children, while Ervin also did not believe in a child vaccine mandate to ensure health safety.

“We shouldn’t force anyone to inject them with anything,” Barkouch said. However, he said he personally believed in getting a vaccine.

Furthermore, no one had a definitive solution to pay for the proposed budget increases when Jersey City’s schools face a massive deficit.

Thyson Halley, running on the Change for Children slate, was unable to attend due to a death in the family.