HACKENSACK, N.J. — Following her accidental broadcast of herself in her bathroom during the school board’s Zoom meeting Monday night and the board’s subsequent rejection of a resolution to move the school board election date from the third Tuesday in April to November 2021, thereby extending her term another seven months, beleaguered board member Frances Cogelja has announced her resignation from the Hackensack School Board.
During the school board’s regular meeting on Monday night via Zoom, Cogelja did not turn off her camera when she took a bathroom break, accidentally showing herself inside her restroom. The mishap occurred during the public portion of the meeting, which was reportedly viewed by dozens of people, among them students and district staff, in addition to board trustees.
Before the board voted down resolution D 6 under Finance and Budget entitled, “Establishing the Election of Members of the Hackensack Board of Education as the First Tuesday after the First Monday in November,” a high school teacher told the board during public comment that Cogelja was “ill-equipped” to serve on the Board of Education and that extending her term after it expires in May 2021 is “repugnant,” a word she used in publicized emails she had sent to the then-acting superintendent last year regarding the state’s requirement to have LGBT history taught as part of the curriculum. Her comments sparked discord between members of the board of education and the public who flocked to the board meetings petitioning her resignation.
This past summer, Cogelja was repeatedly asked to step down by members of the Board of Education following her June 15 abstention from a resolution setting forth various objectives from hiring to supporting grassroots 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 Memorial Day death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of former Minneapolis white police officer Derek Chauvin, who is facing charges for murder and manslaughter in the second-degree.
At the time, 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. 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.”
In July, after board members told Cogelja she was a “distraction” and that her resignation was the right course of action, she declared she would not be stepping down.
At Monday night’s meeting following the bathroom faux pas during the discussion of the election resolution — which would have allowed for trustees whose terms are set to expire in May 2021 to continue to serve until the January 2022 reorganization meeting — Trustee Scott James-Vickery said he thought “the harm she will create in the next eight months is not worth the money.”
Cogelja had stepped away from the meeting with her camera and microphone turned off while Vickery made his comments.
Later on in the meeting, Cogelja implored Superintendent Robert Sanchez to reverse his decision to keep schools closed for remote learning. Originally, the district planned to reopen schools on Nov. 2 for hybrid learning (a mix of in-person and virtual learning on a cohort schedule to allow for the alternation of half the student body in the school at one time every day.) However, that decision was reversed on October 30 following Bergen County Technical Schools’ closure within a week following three reported cases of Covid-19, which caused some three dozen students and staff to quarantine. In a letter to the district, Sanchez said he believed keeping schools closed until further notice was in the “best interest” of the students after discussing the matter with the city health department.
Cogelja said she felt the students’ physical and mental health were being jeopardized given their continuation of remote learning the past eight months since schools were closed following the state-imposed lockdown by Governor Murphy. Board President Powell said, “There is no right decision when it comes to Covid-19 and our school district. I’m sure all school districts are struggling with the same thing. We’re trying to do the best for our district.”
Following the three-hour meeting Monday evening, a group calling themselves “People for Hackensack’s Future,” a coalition of community members committed to the well-being of all Hackensack residents, fairness and inclusivity, established an online petition called the “Flush Fran Fund” to collect donations to unseat her.
On Tuesday, a note was posted to the district website announcing their receipt of a letter from Cogelja who stated her decision to resign effective Tuesday, November 24.
Cogelja was first elected to the board in 2018 after her third try to run for a school board seat. Trustees have until January 29, 2021 to fill the vacancy.