HACKENSACK, N.J. — The Hackensack Mayor and Council and Board of Education are calling upon the resignation of Board Member Frances Cogelja after her initial abstention on June 15 from the board’s resolution to commit to anti-racism and cultural proficiency in city public schools.
The resolution, which was first passed by eight members of the nine-person board last Monday evening except Cogelja, listed numerous anti-racism goals, which includes having members of the administration together with anti-bully specialists explore restorative justice programs and make a recommendation with an action plan for implementing such practices in all Hackensack Schools. It calls for the Board supporting grass root school activities including the current Race Matters group to sustain “culturally relevant initiatives and ensure high academic progress for all students.” Another provision includes the board approving the schools chief and personnel subcommittee to devise an action plan that supports increased diversity and inclusion by identifying ways to improve outreach and recruitment during the hiring process with the goal to promote diversity in respect to the applicant pool.
The resolution was crafted by members of the administration on the heels of public outcry against racial inequality and discrimination following local and national outrage that sparked protests over George Floyd’s Memorial Day death by white police officer Derek Chauvin, who is now facing charges for second-degree murder and manslaughter. Locally, Hackensack was host to two large protests that drew hundreds of disgruntled demonstrators (a number of them young people) who demanded an end to police brutality and justice for Floyd. Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was pinned down against the pavement by Chauvin who knelt down on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest before he died. Throughout the torture, Floyd yelled he couldn’t breathe, words that have become the rally cries of the tens of thousands of protesters taking it the streets in his — and other victims of police brutality’s — honor.
“The board supports public outcry against racial inequity and any form of bigotry and discrimination,” said Vice President Scott James Vickery. “We are committed and stand unified in abolishing such bigotry. We support individuals’ rights to freedom of speech, and reaffirm the board resolution adopted in its entirety.”
“I am very proud we passed an anti-racism resolution tonight,” said Board Member Ira Goodman. “It’s very important that we are anti-racism entirely.”
The following Monday, June 22, the board held a near-two-hour meeting, again via Zoom, to discuss diversity and racism and review board policy. Cogelja elucidated her reason for abstaining from the previous week’s vote on the resolution, citing a “personal conflict” with a “particular part of the resolution” which she did not identify, and apologized for not explaining her position then. (She voted “yes” on the anti-racism resolution that evening along with the rest of the board when a second roll call vote was cast.)
“A very dear friend of mine who is extremely politically savvy left me a message on my phone this past weekend and said you have a heart of gold, but you don’t know anything about politics. I’m sure in a lot of ways he meant it not as a compliment,” said Cogelja.
The board members, however, were not buying it.
“As a board member and as a citizen, I feel at this time our district is so distracted by what’s been happening that it’s the right thing for Mrs. Cogelja to resign,” said Goodman. “We have to stop distractions. We have too much work to do. Distractions are hurtful and wasting time.”
Cogelja, who jotted down notes as Goodman spoke, read off a list of the names of “phenomenal educators” who made her feel blessed to have and a proud city resident. She also recounted her time on the board and before, when she had run twice for a school board seat in the past and failed her bid for election until she was lucky the third time after being approached by a resident who told her she was “needed” on the board. Cogelja teared up when discussing her personal ties to all the board members, including her daughter’s friendship with one of the member’s children, and called out each of the members individually to express her respect for each one.
While she said not following the pack and saying what was on her heart was what got her into “hot water,” Vickery countered that it’s not what’s on her heart, but what’s in her heart that resulted in such controversy.
“You’ve consistently demonstrated that you’re unable to detach yourself,” said Vickery. “Everything we’ve heard tonight was about you…. Because I’ve watched this for over a year, it is time for you to resign.”
Board President Lancelot Powell agreed, saying he was “very disappointed” that she abstained from the resolution the first time, after which he said he received numerous calls about her action.
“When you make decisions about kids, take yourselves out of the picture,” he said. “It’s not about you, it’s not about how you feel. It’s about what’s best for our students. Always put the kids first before your personal agendas.”
Powell said he wished to move forward and regain the trust of the community and the student body. During Tuesday night’s council meeting, the Mayor and Council expressed their agreement with the board.
Deputy Mayor David Sims said Cogelja’s abstention caused “a lot of pain” and “disgust” by Hackensack residents.
“This is a time in our country when people are rising up against systemic racism,” said Sims. “People are marching in our streets and protesting the killing of black men and women, raising awareness of the struggle of racial justice. We all have to do more.”
He continued, “Someone elected to represent a diverse city like Hackensack has to be able to at least understand that. At this moment in history we need our elected leaders to stand 100 percent against racism. We can only move forward as a community if we stand together.”
Sims said he called for Cogelja is step down as board member for the good of the city, and said he hopes she recognizes the pain she caused and wishes for the city to heal from the situation.
Mayor John Labrosse agreed, expressing his and the council’s support of all the good that has come from the recent protests in Hackensack and beyond, denouncing racial inequality and police brutality, and mentioned his commitment to take former President Obama’s pledge to explore police reform.
“Unfortunately, a member of the Board of Education decided to go in a different direction,” he said, adding that it’s in the “best interests of our diverse community that the board move forward without unnecessary distraction and division.”
“I want all residents to know that I and the council stand unequivocally against racism, bigotry, hatred, and any other forces of division in our country,” said Labrosse. “We all need to stand together and confront the challenges before us.”
The next Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Monday, July 13.