In Jersey City, 25% of the average resident’s property tax bill is allocated to Jersey City Public Schools (JCPS). As such, the Board of Education (BOE) election – held this year on Tuesday, November 4th – is an opportunity for taxpayers to weigh in on how they want their local tax dollars spent.
The question “What makes the best BOE candidate?” can seem daunting, particularly to a taxpayer who knows very little about the public schools. But a basic reading of the facts makes one conclusion clear: the Parents for Excellence team are the most qualified candidates this year.
The Parents for Excellence team consists of two incumbent candidates – Bertram Okpokwasili and Carol Harrison-Arnold – and a third candidate whose professional background is steeped in education, Monica Kress. These three candidates represent a continuation of the positive change we are currently seeing in our district.
Constructive Progress Must Continue
The Parents for Excellence candidates have demonstrated the strongest support for our current superintendent, Dr. Marcia Lyles, as she continues to oversee positive changes in our school district. When Dr. Lyles first joined the district in the fall of 2012, she identified core areas for improvement, including increasing the number of college-ready students and increasing the number of students who participated in advanced placement (“AP”) classes.
Two years later, results are positive:
- Six schools – PS6, PS23, PS30, PS38, and Liberty and Dickinson High Schools – have recently been recommended for removal from “Focus” status (“Focus” is a state-based designation that connotes the school has need for improvements).
- Liberty and Dickinson High Schools are seeing decreased drop-out rates and increased graduation rates.
- AP test takers and test results have increased across the district.
There is progress, but there is also a tremendous need for improvement, which is to be expected. Dr. Lyles and the current BOE have been upfront about areas for improvement, as stated in the district’s 2014-17 strategic plan, which cites a need to “reexamine [the district’s] performance and reinvent itself.”
Dr. Lyles and the current BOE are helping our district realize real progress, and we must constructively support their efforts.
Independence is an Imperative
The teachers’ contract has factored prominently in this election. The current contract has been expired since August 31, 2013, and so teachers are still being paid at 2013 rates. (The teachers are not currently “without a contract” as some candidate have asserted. NJ state law automatically extends an existing contract to continue in all forms until a new contract is agreed upon.)
It is a clear conflict of interest for any candidate to align themselves with the Jersey City Education Association (aka the teachers union) yet also seek election to the BOE. Parents for Excellence is the only team in this election who have avoided this conflict, and are independent in both fact and appearance. “The Childrens First Team” candidates Lorenzo Richardson and Gerald Lyons and independent candidate Joel Torres, have received endorsements from the teachers union. They have also criticized Dr. Lyles and the current BOE for the stalled teachers’ contract negotiations. This, despite none of them being privy to the negotiations since none of them are sitting BOE members.
The primary issue with the teachers’ contract is this: teachers need a new contract, but taxpayers must fund it, thus an obvious fiscal balance must be struck. The NJ School Boards Association provides comparative data on teacher contract settlement rates in NJ; in 2012-13, the average annual pay increase was 2.25%. Yet recent press reports indicate the Jersey City teachers union is seeking a 19% pay increase over three years, or approximately 6% per year. This is a significant disparity in expectations.
Further complicating the teachers’ contract issue is the teacher pay scale – designed by the union – that pays teachers with seniority disproportionately more than less experienced teachers. In effect, teachers with fewer years experience are exposed to greater risk of layoffs if the contract is too expensive in the aggregate. The hard reality is that there is a limit to how much cost the district – and City taxpayers – can bear.
The teachers’ contract negotiations are still underway, and there has been political pressure exerted on the BOE by the teachers union, Mayor Fulop, and Councilman Daniel Rivera to settle the contract quickly. We need BOE members who can stand up to this political pressure and approach the teachers’ contract process with independence. The Parents for Excellence team are the only candidates who have demonstrated the capacity to do this.
Parents for Excellence: a Vote for Constructive Progress and Fiscal Independence
It is imperative to get out the vote and choose collaboration, independence, and the right fiscal balance for all of Jersey City. I believe Bertram Okpokwasili, Carol Harrison-Arnold, and Monica Kress are the best promise for that balance.