It didn’t take long for the Board of Education to start hurling accusations that the state had meddled in a report that recommended a way for the state to get out of the city’s school system.
The board raised questions over the similarity in a transition team report and a state Assembly bill. “Insulted,” “ludicrous” and “flabbergasted” were some of the choice words hurled across the Formica table on the ninth floor board offices on Tuesday.
Many of the verbal spitballs were aimed squarely at Gregg Butterfield, a former chairman of the board, and the head of a transition team that earlier this month recommended a plan to get Trenton out of Jersey City.
“I know the implication,” said Butterfield, “That I was in cahoots with the commissioner of education.” Butterfield told board members that this was not the case.
The city’s schools have operated under state control since 1989. This summer, state Education Commissioner David Hespe announced a transition team that would recommend a way for the state to get out of the city’s schools. That team met several times this fall, and released a report earlier this month outlining its proposals.
Butterfield, explaining his team’s recommendations, said he wanted to answer the question: “How can we get into the position that no one can take us over again?”
But the meeting quickly degenerated.
Board of Education member and former Mayor Anthony Cucci pointed to an Assembly bill, sponsored by Bayonne mayor and Assemblyman Joseph V. Doria and Monmouth and Ocean County Assemblyman David Wolfe. That bill, introduced on Nov. 20, contains similar language and recommendations to the transition team report issued Dec. 1.
The bill recommended, in addition to nine elected members of the board of education, the appointment of “no more than four additional members to serve during the transition period. The appointed members, if any, shall be community members recommended by institutions of higher education, business leaders and faith- and community-based groups within the districts.”
The transition team recommendation read as follows: “The voting members shall consist of nine members elected by the public at large and four members 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.” Noting the similarity, board member Bill DeRosa said it appeared that the transition team was “steered” to have language similar to the bill.
Frank Sinatra, who served in the ’90s as a state-appointed superintendent and is now an assistant to state Commissioner David Hespe, said he was “flabbergasted” when he saw the bill. He noted that the team went through many votes to get to the final board composition, and insisted that the board had not been influenced by the state or Commissioner Hespe.
But board member Franklin L. Williams persisted. “Why is this report identical to the other report?”
Responded Sinatra, “I think you’d have to ask Assemblyman Doria that question.”
A spokesman for the Assembly Democrats said last week that he doubted the shenanigans alleged by the board.
“I don’t think there’s any untoward conspiracy going on here,” said spokesman Joe Donnelly. “The bottom line is, Joseph Doria wants to provide a mechanism to get Jersey City schools out of state and back in to local control. And he’s fully cognizant of the fact that it’s going to take bipartisan cooperation with considerable input from the executive branch.”
As far as the current bill, A3030, is concerned, he said, “It’s rather early in the process. This bill has a tremendous way to go.” He anticipated some action on the bill early next year.
The transition team also recommended that unregistered voters have the chance to vote in April school board elections. The Doria bill did not make this recommendation.
Still upset over what they perceive as the board’s minor role in the recommendation (Board of Education chairwoman Sue Mack and member Willie Flood served on the 15-member committee), the board called for a meeting with Doria this week.
Butterfield and board member Williams tangled near the end of the meeting.
“I’m so sorry you think this is a show for the state,” said Butterfield to Williams.
“You have put us on a path to division in this school district,” said Williams, referring to the team’s recommendation for a combined appointed/elected board. He then added, his voice rising, “We don’t need you here. We don’t want you here. Get the hell out of here!”
Butterfield complied. “Have a Merry Christmas!” he said.
With that, he left the room.