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The confrontation over whether or not the city council should put a referendum on the ballot for an appointed school board seems almost like a scene from a Star Wars movie, where instead of having an evil emperor seeking to take control of the universe, critics depict Mayor Steven Fulop as doing so.
For those unfamiliar with the Star Wars mythology, George Lucas’ early films depicts the rise and fall of Darth Vader and other warlords, and the emperor who helped create them.
In these films, the evil lord masquerades as a well-meaning elected official, who professes to seek to save the universe while manipulating those events that will allow him to take over.
Acting as savior, the emperor, of course, tells people he will relinquish the power they give him once the threat has passed, only the threat never ends, and his reign of terror eventually leads to the rise of a rebellion that must overthrow him.
This is how many of those who spoke out at the Jan. 8 meeting of the Jersey City council depicted Fulop, claiming he is seeking to extend his control over the school board and using his allies on the city council to accomplish it.
Fulop, however, claims this move to appoint members of the board would only last as long as it takes to solve issues on what he sees as a troubled school board – if only the public will trust to give him the necessary control it will take.
But critics are quick to point out that many of the issues Fulop professes control will allow him to fix were caused by his policies as mayor – in particular the use of abatements that shortchanged the school district in the early part of his administration.
These same critics claim Fulop is partly responsible for the turmoil that has plagued the board over the last eight years – and that recently indicted Sudhan Thomas – outgoing board president – was actually a close ally of Fulop, as are a number of other trustees Fulop and the teachers union helped get elected.
The political history of the board over the last decade is filled with behind the scenes intrigue with Fulop early on backing progressive candidates he later turned against in favor of candidates supported by the teachers’ union.
These progressives successfully hired Dr. Marcia Lyles as superintendent, a linchpin of controversary that came to an end in early 2019 when union backed candidates retook control of the board and removed her.
While Lyles successfully allowed the district to regain local control after three decades under state management, her domineering management style put her at odds with teachers and their union as well as a number of trustees.
A number of the people who spoke at the council meeting in opposition to the referendum, blamed Fulop for causing the turmoil when he originally backed progressives that helped Lyles become superintendent. A number of these speakers seemed to imply that there is a racist element behind Fulop’s action since the superintendent recently appointed to replace Lyles is African-American and the new board president voted in to replace Thomas is also African American – even though Lyles was also African American and Thomas is Indian-American.
While Fulop claimed resignations from the board also prompted him to seek an appointed board in order to instill stability, many of the resignations were for personal not political reasons, and the new board – after years of turmoil – appears stable as a result of recent elections. The elective process actually helped solidify the board for the first time in almost a decade as many of the resignations were from progressives who had originally appointed Lyles.
Fulop’s move comes a time when many believe the board largely free of the petty politics and seemed to all be on the same page for the first time.
While many of the speakers opposed to the change to an appointed board are traditionally anti-administration gadflies – largely opposed to anyone who happens to be mayor at any given time – many others objected to what they claim was a power grab by Fulop, something Fulop claims isn’t true.
Fulop said that conflicts on the board over the last few years and the shaking fiscal shape of the district motivated him to want to revert to an appointed board.
Critics, however, note that Fulop and his predecessors are largely responsible for the board’s disputes as well as the miserable fiscal shape the district suffers.
Speaker after speaker made it clear that Fulop’s liberal abatement policies when he first took over as mayor in 2013 attracted the wrath of politicians elsewhere in the state since most of Jersey City’s school budget was being paid for in state aid.
Some speakers believe Fulop was also motivated to take over the board when he was unable to force Trustee Joan Paige to resign after she made what some consider antisemitic remarks in December.
Paige, in fact, has become something of a hero in the African American community, a Luke Skywalker standing up to the wrath not only of the mayor, but the governor and the head of the state Democratic Party as well. She has received strong support from the African American Community which perceives the request for her resignation as racist.
Many of the Fulop critics are puzzled at how Fulop’s appointed board will fare any better in solving the district’s problems then an elected board will.
Some critics believe that Fulop’s action is taken because he disagrees with who now controls the board and the direction the board is taken not because it is incompetent or that it lacks the ability to deal with the district’s problems.
To take the Star Wars analogy a little further, by pushing this agenda Fulop risks severing many of the people who helped him get reelected 2017 including teachers union and parents and a campaign for the appointed board this November could come back to haunt him in 2021 when political forces align against him in his reelection bid – waiting only for a Jedi Knight to arise as his opponent.
In many ways, this resembles what happened in Bayonne in 2014 when then incumbent Mayor Mark Smith alienated some many groups that they backed Jimmy Davis in an upset victory.