HACKENSACK, N.J. — City Trustee Frances Cogelja will not surrender her seat on the Board of Education, despite pleas from city officials on both the board and the city governing body, she announced during Monday night’s regular board meeting via Zoom.
The announcement came during board comments at the end of the meeting following the board’s routine approval of its resolutions. Trustee Michael Oates — who was newly-elected to the board this past May along with fellow first-time board members Anthony Rodriguez and Chris Coleman who together ran as "Three Dads" who campaigned on a platform to “rebuild trust with residents,” in addition to improving school safety among other objectives — was the first to again ask her to step down. His request for her departure was backed by Trustees Ira Goodman and Scott-James Vickery who reiterated their points that they made at the previous meeting last month when the issue was broached.
“I want to ask Frances Cogelja to resign,” said Goodman, adding that the board will be more “effective" without what he referred to her as a “distraction.”
Oates echoed those sentiments, saying that her resignation would be “the right move” for the district and students and said he hoped she “does the right thing” and step down.
Cogelja was first asked to step down following her June 15 abstention from a resolution setting forth various objectives from hiring to supporting grass roots school activities to sustain culturally relevant initiatives, among others, in order to commit to anti-racism and cultural proficiency in city public schools. The resolution was crafted by the administration on the heels of the recent protests that sparked across the country following the wrongful death of George Floyd, a black man, by former white police officer Derek Chauvin, who is facing charges for murder and manslaughter, on Memorial Day.
Last month, Cogelja cited a “personal conflict” with a particular part of the resolution, which she did not identify, as her reason for abstaining. However, the following week, she voted in favor of the resolution when a second roll call vote was cast.
Despite her “yes” vote, the board was not satisfied with her reason. On June 22, Board President Lancelot Powell stated that the children come before personal agendas, which he said went for everyone on the board. The following night, the City Mayor and Council met to discuss the issue, and they too sided with the board of education that she should step down to give the city what Deputy Mayor David Sims called a chance to “move forward and heal.”
Cogelja, however, whose term ends in December 2021, is advocating for herself.
"I respect your opinions,” she told the board. "I will not be stepping down. I was elected by [some] 1,000 citizens of Hackensack. I will continue to serve by the best of my ability. I will always vote in the best interest of students and staff throughout our schools.”
Following her statement to continue her service on the board, she expressed disapproval with children needing to wear surgical masks to school come September, citing breathing difficulties for certain students who should be given the choice to opt out of the requirement for health reasons.
Vickery, who said he had previously served as a paramedic, objected to that reason, as did Powell who said Governor Murphy makes those calls and that masks are “critical” in preventing the uptick of Covid-19’s return.
After making her comments, many of the board members appeared tight-lipped, somber and annoyed.
“You are an absolute distraction,” said Vickery to Cogelja. "I get the board members didn’t elect you, but I can promise you the 1,000 people [who did], changed their mind. We have so many things we’re trying to work on and fix, and we instead are talking about a trustee.”
Vickery then prompted the Board President to re-shift the committees given the recent resignation of Lara Rodriguez (who resigned after seven years for personal reasons) in addition to Cogelja’s role on the finance committee whom he said “cannot be trusted” as the finance chair given her demonstrated lack of support for LGBTQ and other race-related initiatives.
Cogelja's initial abstention on the anti-racism policy in June wasn't her first strike with the board. Cogelja was first in hot water last year following the publicizing of her emails to the acting superintendent in which she reportedly called the state’s then-new requirement to have LGBT history taught as part of the curriculum “repugnant.” Her comments sparked discord between both members of the board of education and dozens of people who flocked to a forthcoming board meeting to speak out that they no longer trusted her and were so repulsed by her comments that they implored her to resign.
After stating her intention to stay with the board Monday night, she left the remainder of the meeting for family reasons.