BAYONNE, NJ - Nine of the 14 candidates running for three seats in the Bayonne Board of Education election were on their best behavior on Oct. 10 when they appeared at what will likely be the only debate of the 2019 election.
Participating in the forum, hosted by Hudson County View, were Jan Patrick Egan, Melissa Matthews and Lisa Burke of the “Together We Can” slate and the five independent candidates: Leo Smith, Anthony D’Amico, Melissa Godesky-Rodriguez, Sharma Montgomery, and Stephanie Glover-Wilson whom left the event early.
The candidates fielded about ten questions on issued related to teacher retention, new schools, assessment income, school finance, school construction, trustee conflicts and other relevant issues.
While the candidates disagreed on a number of issues, nearly all agreed that the school district’s special needs programs, in particular its child study teams, were in desperate need of upgrading.
Some of the candidates criticized sitting board members who have conflicts that keep them from being able to vote on certain issues and noted that four of the nine member school board were unable to vote on selecting a new superintendent of schools and teachers’ contracts because they have family members employed in the district.
One of the most critical issues candidates disagreed on concerned how to address the shortage of classroom space due to increasing enrollment and how to upgrade the school buildings, which on the average are 90 years old.
Smith suggested the district build a super school on the former Military Ocean Terminal. But he cautioned the public not to expect a quick fix. Constructing new schools will take time, perhaps as long as three years, which involves surveying land, getting necessary approvals and bonding, he said.
“If you went into any of the older schools you would be appalled,” he said, adding that the district did do a study three years ago as to cost and location of future new schools, but the board “sat on their hands” and did nothing. This was largely because the board as caught up with replacing the school superintendent and business administrator, Smith surmised.
Some of the candidates proposed establishing a middle school concept in Bayonne, which would create one or more schools dedicated to 7th and 8th graders, reducing overcrowding in elementary schools which currently serve kindergarten through 8th grade.
Bayonne also currently operates under a community school concept which allows students to attend an elementary school in their part of town, a concept that could be at risk with a middle school model.
Some candidates suggested that two middle schools, geographically located in Bayonne as to avoid requiring an expanded busing program and retain some aspect of the community school model, would be most suitable.
D’Amico said Midtown School, which is one of the newer Bayonne schools, might be adapted rather than building a completely new building. Baily School in southern Bayonne might also serve as a possible middle school, he said.
Smith and others, however, noted that middle schools only shift the burden but does not solve the overall shortage of classrooms district wide. While middle schools will help create space in elementary schools, the total number of students, which is increasing, remains the same.
Smith also said Midtown did not have the capacity to serve as a middle school.
All eight candidates said the district will need more schools and some means of paying for them.
Several candidates, particularly those of “Together We Can” aligned with Mayor Jimmy Davis, noted that the district does not own enough property for construction, but the city does, tying themselves to a Davis proposal of a partnership between the local government and district to build schools,
Smith suggested building a “super school” on the former Military Ocean Terminal where the city owns land, a plan that he said would accommodate many of the district's needs, a plan Ryan, who added that the district should conduct a survey of available land, seemed to concur with. Ryan also added the former Texaco site as good space for a new school.
Citing the ability to separate age groups more appropriately, and allowing teachers better focus their efforts, Montgomery praised the idea of adopting a middle school model, similar to what said grew up with, as a way of preparing 7th and 8th grades prepared kids for high school.
Godesky-Rodriguez, however, said this would mean abandoning the community school concept. Ryan also opposed moving away from community school concept, saying there is a logistics problem, claiming families could wind up with kids attending three or more schools.
Burke was also concerned about transportation as students might not be able to walk to school but said that having two middle schools, one up town and another downtown, might help. Matthews said she supports the K-8 concept but would also be open to new ideas,
How to pay for these schools is also a problem, several of the candidates agreed.
The state program for helping build new schools is broke, Smith said.
“The money isn’t available.”
Ryan said with state dollars so limited, the district might have to bear the cost through bonding.
Reiterating that land was at a premium Egan suggested that our of necessity the city and district would have to work together, and introduced the idea of using eminent domain, and thereby offering the city the ability to take private property for a public use, should not be off the table.
Matthews agreed that the board should work with city in order to build new schools while Burke suggested that adapting unused facilities such as the closed Catholic schools could alleviate overcrowding. She also suggested partnering with local businesses, and possibly use school yards as temporary space while new schools are built.
How to provide needed programs for students and still balance the annual budget became another area of disagreement.
his was tied into the district's need to retain young teachers, who are apparently leaving for better paying jobs elsewhere in the state, as a high ranking school’s official recently told TAPinto Bayonne.
Smith criticized the current trustees for failing to raise taxes to full two percent allowable in the recently passed budget, saying this additional funding could be set aside to help pay for future teachers' salaries.
Ryan said the current “bubble” concept that allowed the district to hire young teachers at a lower pay rate and then pay them increased salaries when they near retirement might have be abandoned.
Godesky-Rodriguez said the budget issues should not interfere with the district's ability to retain teachers, and that providing quality teachers is a necessity.
Matthews said the district needs to develop more cooperative agreements with businesses and not for profits that could generate financing for programs, something Smith reminded former superintendent Dr. Patricia McGreehen was particularly adept at lobbying local businesses.
“We have to get back to that,” he said.
The district is currently in its second year of a teachers’ contract, which means those elected this year will likely have to act on a newly negotiated collective bargaining agreement during their term.
This could mean that conflicted board members would once again not be able to vote.
Ryan said while he might be conflicted, his position on the board provides him with access to information that allows him as a board member to establish policy.
Other board members, while saying even conflicted candidates have a right to run, said this conflict does a disservice to the public, who elect board members to represent their interests.
Godesky-Rodriguez said this should be a concern when voters go to the polls.
Himself have a number of family members in the district, Smith said he did not see this as a major issue, noting that if a majority of the board became conflicted due to new members with family members the board could adopt a memorandum of necessity, a provision in state law that would allow the board to vote as if not conflicted.
With the district’s annual budget making process being a tumultuous issue in recent years the candidates also sparred on the definition of “stability.”
The trustees need to input from the community and the board needs to be accountable and transparent in its dealings, Godesky-Rodriguez said, something, in her estimation, it hasn’t been in the past.
“How do we know it is stable, there is no transparency,” Burke asked, noting that previous public information meetings were canceled at the last minute, and that budget information documents were hard for the public to understand.
“They are not user-friend,” Burke said.
D’Amico said he is concerned about stability when teachers are underpaid and leaving the district with Montgomery questioning what “stability” even means.
“It means status quo, but may not reflect what the community needs or wants,” she said.
One issue candidates agreed on was that the district should get a larger percentage of tax abatements.
While Egan said tax abatements help generate development and allow the city to collect more on property that would be vacant, other candidates said developers should be paying more to the schools.
D’Amico said that the city really doesn't benefit from development until after the abatements are over and that he would want more control over those payments made while Smith suggested that developers should pay more if their projects are bringing new children into the city.
Neither the “Commitment, Experience, Integrity” slate of Denis Wilbeck and Carol Cruden nor the “Make Bayonne Great” slate of Charlies Shepard, Evelyn Sabol and Lauren Alonso participated.
While the two-hour event was sparsely attended by the general public it can be viewed online here.
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