Dickinson High School

For five years I had the honor of serving on the Jersey City Board of Education. I felt compelled to speak out after witnessing the unfortunate, but all too predictable, events of last week.

In the last election, I was not endorsed by the Jersey City Education Association, and was replaced on the board by candidates that were supported by both the JCEA and, until last week, the board leadership. It was one of their replacement candidates, along with the sitting Board President and Vice-President (all endorsed and supported by the JCEA) who brought about the embarrassment of last week’s board meeting.

While politics are always part of the equation, in fact they are inevitable by the nature of a freely elected school board, the Board of Education functions best when there is a healthy debate of different viewpoints, not dogmatic adherence to a particular viewpoint to the exclusion of other voices. Unfortunately, in 2023, my last year on the board, the mood of the board changed from collaborative to competitive and combative in a manner that made the unfortunate events of last week all but inevitable.

It is no secret that when I won elections it was with the endorsement of the JCEA. The endorsement of the JCEA doesn't come without strings, however. When the last teacher’s contract was negotiated, I remember getting a call at my daughter’s National Honor Society induction ceremony from the JCEA demanding me to come to the board meeting to vote on their contract. I was planning on attending after the ceremony and alerted the Board President that I would be late. Not realizing that other trustees were absent, and some were conflicted, and understanding the importance of my vote, I left the ceremony and dutifully cast my vote in favor of the contract, which I had been planning to do anyway. While I understood the importance of the vote to the union, my family will always come first, and I felt demeaned by the JCEA's attitude.

The mood of the board changed from collaborative to competitive and combative in a manner that made the unfortunate events of last week all but inevitable.

A failure to show sufficient deference to the JCEA has consequences. A few months later, the JCEA spread nasty rumors about me and certain other members of the board claiming that we were plotting to vote out Dr. Fernandez as Superintendent. This was far from the truth, and it was disturbing that the JCEA was apparently receiving sensitive information discussed in closed sessions of the board. More importantly, closed session discussions were being twisted and leaked in a manner to vilify me personally along with certain other board members. In public comments, the JCEA President unfairly branded me and some other former members as “rogue” for raising concerns we had with board leadership in closed sessions that they should not even have been a party to. What the public needs to understand is that these actions were allowed with impunity under the ousted board leadership.

While it is true that I along with certain other board members were dissatisfied with the leadership, I abided by their leadership for the duration of my term on the board. We had many closed session discussions regarding the failure of leadership to keep board members abreast of what was happening, and a general lack of transparency not only with board members, but with members of the public. The hope was that the board leadership would be introspective and grow as leaders.  Obviously, that did not happen. Last week's events were the result.

Despite all of this, I am proud of the work we accomplished. The debates that occurred, and the actions ultimately taken (or not) were always grounded in what was best for district students (and their families), and the overall improvement of the classroom environment to produce positive outcomes.

During my tenure on the Board, the board members, the central office, and the teacher’s union worked collaboratively to address the COVID-19 emergency; the implementation of remote learning; the return to in-person instruction; the absorption and emergency repair of A. Harry Moore School following years of neglect by NJCU; the elimination of lead from school water; the general upgrade of school facilities; the finalization of the return to local control of the Jersey City Public Schools bringing to an end the long state takeover of the public schools that commenced in 1989; addressing historically large reductions in aid from the State of New Jersey; and the orderly transition from Mr. Franklin Walker to Dr. Norma Fernandez.

I want people to know we have good board members who are looking out for the students and the community; but unfortunately, they are apparently being prevented from working effectively due to a failure of leadership. While individuals will disagree, there should be no room for personal animosities and general disrespect of fellow board members. This board must find a way to work collaboratively in the best interest of the students and community. The stakes could not be higher.

Gina Verdibello served as a Jersey City Board of Education Trustee for five years.