Outgoing 2021 Jersey City Board of Education misses mark on showing budgeted investment for mental health services for students; new BOE should aim higher

On Thursday, December 16th, the Board of Education held its final regular meeting of the 2021 calendar year and while many speakers had signed up to speak about mental health services in our schools, and many also sent emails (including those sent from this call to action), the Board of Education did not address the gap in mental health services issue in depth.

At best it was a missed opportunity on the BOE’s part to show some good faith to the public on a complicated issue that matters greatly to students in this district. At worst it was a red flag about administrative and governance shortfalls facing this district. I say this because:

  1. The district included mental health services in its 2021-22 schools budget
  2. District administration and board trustees have repeatedly asserted, on the record, how much they care about the children of this district.
  3. Despite explicit public pressure, they avoided public scrutiny on accounting for the gap in budgeted mental health services for students, something they should not have done if students were in fact the priority; and, for that matter, existing mental health staff who are doing herculean work trying to serve our student population while being spread way too thin after years of budget cuts.

What’s more, one thing that struck me from this month’s December board meeting was how board trustees were praising each other for passing the first fully funded budget in 10+ years as they wrapped up their calendar year; yet simultaneously they ignored public pressure about how and why those funds were not being transformed into actionable reality on the ground in our schools as it related to mental health services. The BOE’s seemingly obliviousness to this disconnect was all the more concerning.

More accountability is needed. A new board of trustees, taking effect in January 2022, can help drive it.

One thing a new board could take up is: let’s see a gap analysis between what was promised in the 2021-22 budget and what has actually been implemented to date.  The new board could ask, as an initial step in the new calendar year, to ask district administrative leadership go through this budget presentation from March 2021 and:

a) itemize what was approved in the final May 2021 budget that took effect in July 2021 (the start of the BOE’s fiscal year) — this is “ideal state”
b) lay out what has thus far been (i) implemented, (ii) in progress, (iii) not yet started, or (iv) started but stopped due to governance or other issues. — this is “actual” state (the cancelled mental health services “Reimagined Mind” vendor contract would fall into buckets (iii) and (iv)).
c) explain the gaps — why do gaps like “not enough mental health services in our school” exist? What do we need to fill those gaps? Etc.

In essence, we need to map budgeted dollars to actual investment. And we need it plainly written out; a good barometer would be to provide enough clarity so that even our students can understand it, because they are the ones living in these gaps on a daily basis.

I think such an exercise would also serve the new board in seeing who among current district leadership has the competencies to drive such a basic accountability exercise, which itself would be a helpful step towards assessing goodness of fit for any acting superintendent role.

Accountability is not a “blame game”; it’s a shared exercise to move forward and ensure students get what they need.

Community advocates, myself included, have credited the current board for passing a fully funded budget in May 2021. But a budget has never been the end point; it’s been the means to the end. A budget is a funding promise to a better and more functional operational reality. And that better operational reality has yet to be realized in various spaces, mental health services included.

Take, for instance, the promise from the March 2021 budget presentation to put a “Tiger’s Den” in every high school.

But the status of the progress is unclear and we know that positions are still not in our schools to the degree they need to be, a fact that community advocates and mental health experts Divya Dodhia, Jessica Taube, and others have helped shed light on.  For instance, over the past two months:

  • the district approved a $2.9 million mental health services contract on August 26, 2021 that aimed to put specialists in schools throughout the district including high schools, then
  • within a few months the BOE terminated that same contract on November 18, 2021 with virtually no public explanation, then
  • in December refused to provide details as to what happened and what the backup plan is, despite urging from the public to do so.

All of this, despite a mental health crisis facing our youth that is so dire, the Surgeon General of the U.S. issued an advisory about it.

Transparency is needed to highlight roadblocks that get in the way of progress.

I would be remiss to not point out obstacles that may be factors in the progress we want to see. For instance:

  1. The fully funded budget comes on the heels of years of structural deficits that will likely take the district years to recover from. Draconian state aid cuts, local resistance to fund, and the resulting adverse impact of hundreds of layoffs and executive/leadership level firings cannot in my view be discounted as having ripple effects we’re likely still feeling and may feel for years to come. In effect, we are climbing out of a proverbial fiscal and operational ditch.
  2. We are in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic-exacerbated staffing shortage that is making the district’s job to fulfill the budgetary promises even harder than it would otherwise would have been in a ‘normal’ year.
  3. We are reckoning with flawed structures that have been in place for years – like uncompetitive staffing contracts – that must be dealt with in a holistic and sustainable manner to both attract and retain talent.

So yes — there are legitimate hurdles. But that is why transparency and communication are so critical. I’ve previously written about transparency shortfalls in JCPS; we saw these shortfalls play out at the final 2021 BOE meeting.

What’s Ahead: Superintendent Retiring, Board of Education Shifting. Public Should Remain Vigilant.

The next BOE meeting will be a reorganization meeting held on Jan 5, 2022 (see details about that here). At that meeting, three new BOE trustees will be sworn in and a new president will be elected by the new board.  Mr. Walker will no longer be superintendent, as he is retiring effective Dec 31, 2021. It is not clear who the new acting superintendent will be; the current board opted to let the new board make that decision.

Here is the current board, effective through Jan 5, 2022.

  1. Mussab Ali – term ends in 2021
  2. Joan Terrell-Paige – term ends in 2021
  3. Marilyn Roman- term ends in 2021
  4. Lekendrick Shaw
  5. Alexander Hamilton
  6. Gerald Lyons
  7. Lorenzo Richardson
  8. Gina Verdibello
  9. Noemi Velazquez

The three new BOE trustees who will be replacing trustees Ali, Terrell-Paige, and Roman on Jan 5, 2022 are:

  1. Natalia Ioffe
  2. Younass Barkouch
  3. Paula Jones-Watson

I contend that starving a school district of needed resources, out of a fear of how those resources would be managed and spent, was never justifiable. But nor is it justifiable to support those funds and then not press for proper governance and management. I fear that, absent a BOE that is willing to tackle these difficult issues, we will return to the status quo of underfunding our schools as the flawed premise argument of “it will all just be wasted” is perpetuated.  Children have a right to receive a quality public education in the community they grow up in. And taxpayers have a right to understand how public funds are being invested, especially as it relates to the community’s children.  The BOE is the governing body to help oversee the investment and ensure the children are served. The public should remain vigilant in holding the new BOE accountable.

A note on the Jan 5, 2022 BOE reorganization meeting.

Public comment was allowed at least year’s reorganization meeting, which indicates it may be allowed at this year’s meeting too.  To get on the speakers’ list, you can call 201.915.6074 (you’ll need to leave a message) or email the BOE at boarddocs@jcboe.org. Learn more about public comment here. You can speak in person, via zoom, or via phone. The JC BOE monthly meetings are streamed live from the district’s Facebook page.

A Call to Action

Please consider supporting mental health services for students. Read and engage in this call to action, it takes less than 5 minutes.

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