Every year, Jersey City voters have the opportunity to elect three individuals to serve on the Jersey City Board of Education (JCBOE). Terms last for three years. The role of the nine member JCBOE is to set policy and oversee administration of Jersey City’s 40 public schools. According to the Hudson County Clerk’s Office there are four confirmed candidates in this year’s election: Vidya Gangadin, Marilyn Roman, John Reichart, and Gina Verdibello.
Jersey City Public Schools: A District in Transition
While recent news about the district regaining two more areas of local control was heralded as a major positive milestone for the district, significant challenges remain. One area – instruction and program – remains under state control and a quantifiable weakness within the district. The 2015-16 JCPS budget totaled $667 million, of which over 70%, or approximately $490 million, is state-funded. Yet state funding has been flat since 2011, putting increasing pressure on local taxpayers each year. For instance, the local school tax levy rose 2% in 2015-16 and it rose 7.5% in aggregate since 2011. Also, the Jersey City Public School district is an “SDA” district, which means the state oversees the construction, funding, and major maintenance of facilities.
The Candidates: An Overview of the Ballot
Vidya Gangadin, Marilyn Roman, and John Reichart are running on the “Education Matters” ticket with the express endorsement of the JCPS teachers union, the Jersey City Education Association (JCEA). The Education Matters ticket also has the backing of Mayor Fulop and the Hudson County Democratic Organization. Gina Verdibello is an independent candidate. She received the endorsement of sitting JCBOE member Lorenzo Richardson, who himself was backed by the JCEA last year.
JCI spoke with each of the candidates about their backgrounds, what they see as the district’s biggest challenges, and what they hope to accomplish if elected next month.
Vidya Gangadin is the current JCBOE president and is seeking reelection to a second term. She is a parent with a 4th and 5th grader in JCPS and a junior in a public, county high school. Her oldest child is in college.
When asked why she is running again, Gangadin said she believes the “district is turning the corner in a positive way” and that “continuity on the board” is important. She said that she supports Dr. Marcia Lyles, JCPS Superintendent of Schools , citing progress that has been made, but more work remains. Gangadin also supports the current business administrator, Luiggi Campana, whose contract she voted to renew in June 2015. The Jersey City Education Association is openly critical of Campana. She said “I have worked closely with Campana in terms of the budget and he’s done a great job.” In June the Board ratified contracts with four of the five unions in JCPS, the largest of which was the JCEA.
Gangadin said she sees two challenges in the years ahead. First, she said there was a need for greater accountability around the benefit from funds spent in areas like professional development. The second challenge, she said, was the district’s aging school facilities. She said the JCBOE knows about certain trends, notably a growing student population, per the district’s 2013 demographic study. Gangadin said the district is starting to look at potential re-zoning, given the capacity issues that exist throughout the district.
Gangadin also said she wants more parent engagement. She said the community forum held last spring saw over 300 parents attending, and evidence of her focus on improving outreach to parents throughout the district.
John Reichart has three children; his oldest attends college, his middle child is in a public, county middle school located in Jersey City, and his youngest is in a public elementary school in Jersey City.
He currently works as Operations Director for Silverman, a local developer in Jersey City. Prior to working for Silverman, Reichart was employed with the NJ Transit Police and a member of the Local 304 PBA (Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association), then, after being promoted to sergeant, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge #37. Reichart volunteered that he was also a registered lobbyist with both organizations. He stated that his experience with the NJ Transit Police gave him experience with labor issues and contract negations. From 2007 to 2014, Reichart served on the board of the Historic Downtown Special Improvement District, a “public-private partnership” around downtown development. He was president of that body from 2008-2014.
When asked about how his professional experience might serve JCBOE. Reichart acknowledged that the Jersey City Public School district’s administration is dealing with aging buildings, but he pointed to “waste” and “bureaucracy” as factors in improving JCPS’ facilities. He cited a new high school in Trenton as one such an example, stating that it would cost the SDA over $100 million to build a new school, yet the new “Charles & Co” building on the corner of Grove and Montgomery cost Silverman (his employer) approximately “$20 million to build”. He said there appears to be a “lot of waste” and “too many layers of bureaucracy.”
The biggest challenge facing JCPS, Reichart said, was managing growth in an meaningful and effective manner. It’s a “good problem to have” but still an issue. Secondly, he said we need a stable and sustaining funding formula given the district’s reliance on state funding.
Marilyn Roman is an incumbent candidate who is serving out her first term as a Jersey City BOE trustee. When asked why she was running again, Roman acknowledged that the district has made progress, but that “there is a lot more work to do.”
Roman was a Jersey City Public School elementary and middle school teacher for 19 years, then became an education supervisor, guiding teachers how to write unit plans, lesson plans, and adjust to new programs. She explained how her experience as a teacher informs her concerns about the current instruction-related challenges within JCPS.
Her biggest concern is with the over-emphasis on testing, which is driven by the district’s transition to the PARCC test. She believes too much testing limits the time and attention that teachers can devote to individual student needs. She said that teachers need to “take kids from where they are,” but the current emphasis on standardized testing prohibits this flexibility. “We need to be able to help teachers become really good teachers but at same time go forward and try and give them the time and materials they need to do a good job.”
Roman said she would like to see the district continue to focus and expand the magnet “small learning communities,” such as the hospitality and tourism program at Ferris High School, the Academy of Sciences program at Dickinson High School, and the Culinary Arts and Restaurant Management program at Lincoln High School. These programs, she explained, are especially beneficial for kids who may not have the encouragement or interest in a traditional 4-year college degree.
Roman spoke of the “science of teaching” and the “art of teaching.” She said it’s critical that teachers be trained in the art of teaching, which includes developing creative and and innovate ways to grab hold of the kids and get them interested.
Gina Verdibello is a parent of three children who attend elementary school in the Jersey City Public School District. Verdibello previously ran for a seat on the Jersey City Board of Ed in 2013 and 2014. In seeking election to the JCBOE, her main goal is to improve communication between parents and the district. Her other goals include involvement in the curriculum and testing, providing more after school programming for kids, and improving the school lunch program. Verdibello has been a vocal critic of the PARCC test.
Verdibello’s professional background includes administration and writing of small grants.
Verdibello feels the biggest issue the district faces is the lack of parent involvement. She said she wants to encourage more parents to get engaged, and she wants to see improvements in how the district engages parents. She feels meetings are “not easy to get to” and “people are scared about retribution over their kids” if they complain openly at a Jersey City BOE meeting. She also wants to advocate more forcefully at the state level than she’s seen from the current JCBOE.
Verdibello has been a staunch critic of the district’s maintenance of facilities. In May 2014 she established a Facebook page for parents, teachers, and staff to crowdsource facilities complaints in an open forum. This preceded the district updating its website to provide a “facilities request form” link on its home page. Verdibello credited her advocacy for getting the district to finally open itself to direct parent requests and complaints.
She explained that she is an active member of the community. She is a board member on the West Side Community Alliance, a Girl Scouts troop leader, and she attends the Jersey City Board of Education meetings regularly.
When and Where to Vote
Election Day is Tuesday, November 3. To check your polling location, use the Polling Place Search on the New Jersey State Department website and for more information on voting in Hudson County, visit the Hudson County Clerk’s website.
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Photos courtesy of the candidates