Mayor Fulop: Please Stop Politicizing Our Public Schools

I emailed this letter to Mayor Fulop on September 24th.

Dear Mayor Fulop,

After reading this article in today’s Jersey Journal, I’m asking you, as a parent of two children in the Jersey City Public School (JCPS) system: Please stop politicizing our public schools.  

I was at the Jersey City Board of Education (BOE) meeting last week (September 17th) when the proposed closure of schools on September 24th for the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha was discussed.  It was heated & emotional. The Muslim community was well represented and the tone and quality of the public comments was reasoned, heartfelt, and compelling. Similarly, the BOE was respectful toward one another and the public.

The BOE was divided on whether or not to close JCPS for Eid Al-Adha – it was *not* a unanimous vote to keep the schools open today.  The BOE spent nearly 2 hours discussing this; it was not an easy issue to discuss or, as the vote indicates, come to a decision on. I stayed until the meeting adjourned and left PS #11 at midnight with other parents.  One reason I stayed: to thank every single BOE member, even those who I didn’t agree with, for the quality and tone of their comments.  They were exemplary in my opinion.

Here are some highlights I listened to as to to why it made sense to NOT close the schools:

  • The primary reason for *not* closing the schools included the hardship that would undoubtedly be felt by families who could not – in one week’s short notice – arrange childcare. Several BOE members emphasized that many of the families in Jersey City Public Schools qualify for free or reduced lunch; these are families in which one or both parents may work multiple jobs to make ends meet. These are families where a missed day of work is a missed day of wages….or worse, a job that may be put in jeopardy due to not showing up or calling in sick. Some of these parents cannot, as those with salaried jobs and allotted personal time off, “just take a sick day.”
  • In a district of 28,000 students that stretches from the waterfront to the west side, from Greenville to the Heights, the challenge of getting all families aware of a school closure within one week’s time was not realistic in the opinion of some BOE members.
  • Some BOE members also pointed out the practical considerations given the state-mandated school schedule.  Per the JCPS calendar, school already extends to June 22nd. The state has mandated that school CANNOT extend into July. That means that there are 7-8 days to work with, in terms of extending school for unforeseen snow days, beyond June 22nd. If you then start to consider the scope of requested religious holidays, then the possibility of the BOE being forced into a discriminatory position emerges, wherein it cannot meet the needs or wants of all religious communities.

The BOE was also forthright and transparent about its own shortcomings in light of the comments it heard from the public. The Muslim community’s grievances were valid in many, if not all, respects.  For instance, the BOE acknowledged the following:

  • A broader discussion is needed around religious holidays. The Muslim community had come to the BOE last June and addressed this issue, but it was *not* prioritized by the BOE and the larger discussions around religious holidays were not had over the summer.
  • The district must not – emphasize NOT – penalize students for taking excused absences which include many approved religious holidays. Parents and students spoke of absences from school due to religious observance, yet students are being marked absent. Students then miss out on “perfect attendance” recognition which is awful; we should be championing these students for such achievements.  The BOE emphasized, however, that marking students absent for approved religious observances is NOT ALLOWED, per the NJ State Board of Education, which publishes a list of approved absences (the 2015-16 list is available here).  Eid al-Adha is one of the approved holiday absences.

The BOE members – to their credit – acknowledged these issues within the district and promised to address them.  This issue was referred to the Policy Committee, chaired by Gerald Lyons.

But the BOE also shared with the public some concerning issues about how politics had crept into this issue, including:

  • Several BOE members’ comments were about pressure exerted on them from the city government.  The City resolution asking the district to close is at the bottom of this letter.
  • One BOE member asked why charter schools not put under similar pressure to close for Eid al-Adha. This is a valid question.  Why did the city exert pressure only on the BOE? Public dollars fund the charter schools as well; why are they not on the city’s radar?
  • And one question I heard from some in the public gallery: the city itself is not shutting down.  So why was it asking the public schools to shut down on such short notice?

In my opinion, the city should not dictate policy to the BOE, under the guise of diversity, inclusion, or any other issue.  From a public policy perspective, this is bad governance. Jersey City and the BOE are two distinct governing bodies, with separate leadership, oversight, and budgets.  We need distinct governing bodies that can work productively with one another, versus bodies that attempt to bully each other.

The Muslim community’s respectful and powerful showing at the meeting had a resounding impact.  The BOE noted this impact, and I witnessed it as a member of the public. The entire community will benefit from a broad conversation around religious diversity and how it is recognized and celebrated in our public schools.  For that benefit we will have the Muslim community to thank, as several BOE members pointed out.  I recognize this may be, and likely is, cold comfort to those who celebrate Eid al-Adha, particularly given their efforts as far back as last spring to have Eid al-Adha recognized.

This is a sensitive and profoundly important issue.  Yet I believe your comments about “missed opportunities” and “no downside” degrade the entire conversation.  With respect, you are not a parent, an educator, or an administrator of the schools. What exactly informs your assessment that there was “no downside” to this issue?  Have you spoken with parents, caregivers, teachers, principals, social workers, psychologists, guidance counselors, security guards, crossing guards, bus drivers, and the countless other individuals who work hard in our district EVERY SINGLE DAY about potential downsides of one-week’s notice for a religious holiday in one of the most religiously diverse districts in the entire country?  Did you do any research on this issue at all, beyond understanding the Muslim community’s sincere and heartfelt desire for school closures throughout JCPS for Eid al-Adha?

In the recent NJ.com article, City Council President Lavarro, to his credit, acknowledged “If we [city government] had known there was a logistical concerns and so forth at that time we would have worked with them [the BOE].”  Mr. Lavarro should be credited for his remarks; it illustrates a willingness to accept the city government’s shortcomings and an acknowledgement of the complexities involved.  I hope Mr. Lavarro holds true to this sentiment on a go-forward basis as it relates to our public schools.

Mayor Fulop, we need all oars in the water to move our schools forward.  There are plenty of issues you can team with the BOE on.  But those issues are best encountered with collaboration, partnership, and dialog.

Thank you.

Jersey City Resolution #15.668 asking the BOE to close schools on September 24.  The resolution was passed on September 9th:

Res 15.668 - Eid al-Adha and Diwali

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