A battle is brewing over control of the Jersey City public school system, recently the focus of a swirl of controversy involving members of its elected board of education.
The city council Wednesday night is slated to take up a proposal by Mayor Steve Fulop seeking a switch to a school board whose members would be mayoral appointees, rather than elected by city voters. The move would require voter approval, and the council vote could authorize a ballot question in the next general election.
With an annual budget of over a half billion dollars, the Jersey City public school district has an enrollment of roughly 35,000 students. City property tax support for the district was roughly $125 million last year.
Fulop says that, since he is held responsible for the fiscal health of New Jersey’s second largest city, he wants a say in how the school board spends its money.
“This is not a question of do we need to elect every single level of government,” he said. “It’s about who you hold accountable ultimately. People know who the mayor is. People hold the mayor responsible for the budgets. I have no ability to make decisions on how those dollars are being spent, which is really unfair and a major disconnect there. So, we’re saying give us the ability to control that front and hold us accountable and if you don’t like the results in the outcome remove us.”
Board roiled by controversy
Fulop’s proposal comes amid news reports about a board member making anti-Semitic comments in the wake of December’s deadly shooting at a kosher grocery. In addition, trustee Sudhan Thomas was brought up last month on state charges of accepting $35,000 in bribes from a cooperating witness in exchange for legal contracts with the district. Thomas is also now facing unrelated federal embezzlement charges relating to a charity he led.
Fulop cites the chaos on the board as a reason for the move. Ironically, he had appointed Thomas, who state officials said was preparing to run for city council, to a different agency and supported him for the board of education.
“One person indicted for bribery. Four people resigning midterm. One person with an ethics charge. One person saying anti-Semitic comments that got national attention,” Fulop said. “The board is an entire chaotic sideshow, unfocused on outcomes for children.”
The district teachers union opposes the mayor’s plan.
“I blame Steve Fulop for the chaos,” said Ronald Greco, president of the Jersey City Education Association.
Greco said Fulop has meddled in the school board’s business for years.
“Cronyism, patronage at its best under Steve Fulop,” Greco said. “He created all the chaos. His people bankrupted the system here.”
Greco said board members who resigned did so for personal and health reasons.
In 2017, Jersey City regained control of its schools after a partial state takeover. Last week, Lorenzo Richardson was elected board president. He said he was surprised by the mayor’s plan.
“I don’t think I have a tainted record,” Richardson said. “I think we need to have people who have a passion to want to help children and to want to help them with their education. But I don’t think you’re going to get that through an appointment because of the fact that you have people who are influenced by those people who appoint the people.”
Others are taking aim at the mayor’s plan.
“What’s not been made clear is how his appointing people will solve the problem,” said city resident Esther Wintner.
Greco called the move a “power grab” by Fulop.
“November 2019 was the first time we had an election fully out of state control,” the union president said. “The mayor did not achieve the results he wanted so now he’s going to try to privatize, as I call it, the school board.”
Greco said in the late ’80s the district had an appointed school board that led to the state takeover. Fulop says the comparison is unfair.
Fulop was asked whether he would appoint anyone from the current board.
“I think that board today has some good people on it and some people that are very, very unproductive,” he said.
Fulop’s plan has some council support. One member wants voters to consider the board’s performance.
“If you’re not happy with that, then it gives another opportunity, another tool to use to improve Jersey City’s school systems,” said Councilmember Michael Yun.
Meanwhile, Richardson says the sitting school board must consider how to manage a projected cut of $175 million in state aid. In addition, the district needs $72 million to close budget gaps and prevent layoffs.
Potential solutions Richardson cited: an anticipated nearly $40 million from the new payroll tax, federal grants, efficiencies that an audit would reveal and a lot more money from city government.