Jersey City’s mayor Jerramiah Healy gave his annual State of the City address last week, an emphatic re-election campaign speech to be sure. Upon reading the 17 page document one is startled to find no mention of the state of the city’s public school system. Not one sentence. There were plenty of bromides on playgrounds and flag football programs (yes, flag football) addressing our city’s youth. This is a remarkable omission from a mayor who, in his opening sentences, claims Jersey City to be a world class city and a leader in job creation.
This is obviously an election year speech, for there is no room to mention policy failures. In a report released this past December by the state Department of Education, Jersey City saw five of its six public high schools achieve worse graduation rates in 2011 than in the year before. This is not progress, and certainly not a contributing factor in Healy’s definition of a world class city. So why not spend a few paragraphs discussing new bicycle lanes and public swimming pools? And flag football.
What exactly is the mayor’s education plan? A thorough scouring of Healy’s campaign website provides no answers. Under the heading “On The Issues” there are brief descriptions of past accomplishments, cherry picked to fit under headlines like fiscal responsibility, economic growth, the environment, and public safety. There are no plans, certainly no specifics. Only rhetoric. And with zero mention of the city’s public schools, and its roughly 34,000 students.
This being an election year, fortunately Healy will have to defend his record to someone who will certainly hold his feet to the fire. Ward E councilman Steve Fulop is the only major challenger, and has made it a priority to be involved in Jersey City’s public schools dating back to his first year on the council, 2005. For three consecutive Board of Education election cycles Fulop and his volunteer organization have successfully recruited and pushed over the finish line eight candidates out of the nine member board.
Fulop opponents have raised questions about his potential meddling with the BOE’s independent role of hiring a new school superintendent, as well as guiding the BOE toward certain friends for business contracts. These allegations aside, what is at stake in this May’s election is the future of Jersey City’s students. The potential to implement real policies and to provide solid leadership on public education.
Just compare Fulop’s website to the mayor’s. Fulop is in the process of rolling out his platform. So far there are detailed policy prescriptions on jobs and employment, public safety, and education. Included in his jobs platform is a prisoner re-entry plan. This alone is 33 pages of detailed proposals on providing education programs for at-risk youth and recently released prisoners. In 17 pages of rhetoric and an entire campaign website, mayor Healy doesn’t come close to outlining a plan of action. Of any kind.
Victor Hugo once said that he who opens a school door closes a prison. It is essential that leaders of large, urban cities like Jersey City appreciate this attitude and lead according to its central idea. By highlighting the need to focus on future educational and job placement needs of the incarcerated, Fulop proves to be a forward thinking and serious elected official.
Highlights of his education plan include forging closer ties between the mayor’s office and the BOE; reorganizing the formula of new real estate tax abatement revenue that will fund public schools; reorganizing the school’s recreation and summer jobs programs, expanding its reach beyond the Department of Recreation to all areas of city government for youth involvement; and lobbying for new state laws allowing for mixed use real estate facilities for schools, resulting in smaller classroom sizes.
Many of these ideas are firsts for Jersey City. They, and other ambitious proposals, display what leadership is about. Another first would be for mayor Healy to counter with his own plan for our schools, a system that has been under state control since 1989.
Ideally this May’s election will be about ideas, a contest of policy, not politics. Realistically, it will come down to pushing and shoving, slinging of mud. Such is political life in Hudson County. Submitting new ideas and challenging the status quo are true leadership qualities. Steve Fulop, up to now, has the edge here. The question now is, from a city starved for leadership, where is the mayor?