A plan to chew over Public school team recommends allowing unregistered voters to cast ballots, supports state-approved board members

If the recommendation of a school transition team comes to fruition, non-registered Jersey City voters could cast ballots for school board candidates, but it’s likely that state, and possibly, federal legislation would need to be changed to make that happen.

It’s certainly one of the more unique and eye-raising portions of a 10-page (fronting 75 pages of minutes) final report issued to state Commissioner David Hespe and the state Board of Education by the 15-member team on Dec. 1. The group has been meeting since September, and also recommended retaining board members who would ultimately need state approval.

The team is trying to smooth the transition of the Jersey City public schools from state management back to local oversight.

Meanwhile, a state Assembly panel last week approved legislation that would make provisions for the switching of control from state to local even if a local district does not qualify based on the current law. State Assemblyman and Bayonne Mayor Joseph Doria is sponsoring the bill, which will now go to the Assembly floor for a vote. It is a rewrite of the 1987 takeover law that allowed Jersey City to become the first state-controlled district. It would apply to any district, but could apply to Jersey City if approved by the state legislature and governor.

“We wanted to make a strong statement that you’ve got to get parents at the table,” said transition chairman Gregg Butterfield, a former Board of Education chairman, of the recommendation to allow unregistered voters to cast ballots.

When asked if that would allow illegal aliens to vote, Butterfield responded, “No question about it.” But, he also said, “I don’t think it matters when it comes to your child.”

For transition member and current Board of Education chairwoman Suzanne Mack, the large number of Indians, South Americans, and Eastern Europeans that make up the public schools are the reason to allow unregistered voters a chance to select their school board members.

“These are the people who put their kids in the school system, but don’t have a right to vote for their public officials,” she said.

The idea, said members, is based on a New York City law that allows unregistered voters who are parents of children in the city schools to cast ballots for their boards. Those boards, however, control only local school boards in the city’s 32 districts, mainly elementary and middle schools. And the power of those boards has been stripped away in recent years, as a result of “somewhat unscrupulous” activity, said New York City Board of Education spokesperson Margie Feinberg. Meanwhile, the New York City-wide board of education is a body appointed by the mayor and borough presidents.

According to former state-appointed Jersey City schools superintendent Frank Sinatra, who is now an assistant to the state commissioner of education, Hespe challenged the team to come up with innovative ideas.

It’s hard to argue with the innovation, but it’s the implementation that could be the problem. Giving illegal aliens the right to vote poses a daunting legislative challenge.

Gloria Jean Berry, a supervisor in the New Jersey Board of Elections office, put it bluntly last week.

“You can’t have illegal aliens vote in an election,” she said. “They’re not citizens.” The federal Voting Rights Act, as well as state law, would require an overhaul, she argued, to allow aliens to vote.

If the recommendation is approved, the city would become the first in the state to allow non-registered voters to vote in a school board election.

More than a decade state-run

After years of flagging student achievement and alleged political patronage, the state grew weary of Jersey City’s management of the schools and in 1989 took control of the district, the first-ever takeover in the country. That was followed in the 1990s by takeovers in Paterson and Newark. The state scuttled the existing board and installed its own superintendent. As the years progressed, however, more control was ceded to the city.

Jersey City now boasts the second-largest school district in the state, with 32,000 students, three-quarters of whom are black and Hispanic. While student test scores rose, they have not reached the level that would allow the state, without some further legal tinkering, to leave the city.

The state still believes the time has come to pack its bags.

In the first meeting of the transition team in September, Hespe reminded the members of the historic challenge of returning control back to the city: “…it has never been done in the history of Jersey City, the country, the state, or the nation,” he said.

As leaves withered and browned and air grew chill, the transition team met, debated and in the end listened to community members at one sparsley-attended public session.

Their work is now complete.

Hespe has received the team’s report, according to Department of Education spokesman Richard Vespucci, but it was unclear at press time what action would be taken.

The state must ultimately amend and approve the final exit plan.

Whither the board?

Composition of the Board of Education was another key element of the plan. In all, 16 members, three of whom are non-voting (“ex-officio”), will comprise the board. Nine will be elected by voters during the April school board elections.

The other four, according to the report, will be “nominated by a standing committee comprised of representative parents, businesses, higher education, mayor/council, and clergy. Said committee shall nominate four individuals who categorically represent parents, business, higher education, and clergy. Said nominations will be ratified by the commissioner of education who will make these appointments to the board.”

Who will nominate the nominators is another question.

“I haven’t really gone through the logistics of it,” said Butterfield last week. But he suggested that that Superintendent Charles Epps might hold a meeting and have “all the clergy and all the businesses get together and sit down” to decide on board members.

The decision came after debate over a hybrid of mayor/council appointments and elected officials. Some on the team feared a return to pre-takeover days, while others argued that a mayor should have some stake in the city’s schools.

Team member Tom Gallagher, chief of staff for Mayor Bret Schundler, did not wholeheartedly approve the recommended composition of the board.

“The commissioner of education gets to choose,” he said, noting that this seemed contradictory to the fact that the city was trying to get itself away from state control.

But, said Butterfield, “We wanted to prevent any interference from other outside forces.”

The city’s lack of parental involvement is frequently cited as a reason for the district’s struggles. To that end, the team recommended “an inclusive city-wide parents organization.” That organization would include a representative from each school and a representative for Jersey City parents whose children go to schools out of the district. The organization would report to the school board “not less than four times per year.”

Mark it on your calendar

By team estimate, Oct. 4, 2002 will be the day the local school board should resume “total responsibility and control of Jersey City public schools.” The schools, the team envisions, will be monitored for progress during the time prior to that date, and will “establish a system of prevention that will identify any practice that occurs in the district that is in conflict with the policies of the Jersey City School Board.”

By January of 2002, the Board of Education will also establish procedures for finding a new superintendent of schools. It is not clear whether the current state-appointed superintendent, Jersey City resident Charles Epps, will remain in his position when state control is relinquished.


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