Did you know Trenton’s next mayor will hand pick the school board?

New Jersey’s mayoral elections are in two weeks and the eyes of the education community are focused on Newark’s contentious race as the candidates debate the fate of Cami Anderson, Newark’s lightning rod of a superintendent.

But here’s something worth noting: Newark schools are under state control and N.J. Education Commission David Hespe, not the local school board, will make the call on Anderson’s renewal. In further diminution of the future mayor’s control of the schools, Newark is one of N.J.’s 553 “Type 2” districts where school board members are elected by residents, not appointed by the mayor.

So shift your attention to Trenton, one of N.J.’s 21 “Type 1” districts, where voters delegate school board selection to the mayor. Trenton, like Newark, has a mayoral race on May 13 and the winner will hand-pick school board members, who will then select the next superintendent. (Francisco Duran, the current CEO of the district, is entertaining better offers.) The mayor-selected board will also oversee all aspects of public school governance, except fiscal matters; Trenton is one of seven N.J. school districts with state-appointed fiscal monitors due to histories of financial mismanagement.

Consider the impact of Trenton’s last elected mayor, Tony Mack, on the city’s troubled school system. (Mack was convicted in February of six counts of bribery and extortion; he refused to leave office, Judge Mary Jacobson threw him out, and now City Council President George Muschal is acting mayor.) Among Mack’s panoply of offenses was his ham-handed attempt to manipulate board members into voting for his preferred superintendent candidate. When board members refused, he rescinded their appointments.

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As Trenton attempts a post-Mack recovery, six mayoral hopefuls are vying for the top slot: Eric Jackson, Jim Golden, Kathy McBride, Paul Perez, Walker Worthy, and Bucky Leggett. Jackson is considered the frontrunner, although he needs 50 percent of the vote to prevent a run-off. The candidates’ education platforms have received only cursory attention, far less than their Newark counterparts, although their strategies loom large for this 13,000 student system with a 48 percent graduation rate.

Where the beef?

So, a quick overview. Let’s dispense with three candidates who seem to lack a coherent education platform, at least judging by their websites and their remarks at last Saturday’s “Setting Trenton’s Education Agenda” forum. (See my coverage here).

Kathy McBride’s website touts this educational bona fide: she “guided students on a tour of city hall.” On Saturday morning she assured the community that “I have a team already in place to replace board members” when three seats are up in May. Here is her full platform on education

Next we have Bucky Leggett, who doesn’t seem to be a real candidate; he was a no-show on Saturday and has a two-part education plan: “Create office of education policy, Develop vocational school.”

Then there’s Walker Worthy, who is not as easy to dismiss because he’s the favored son of the county political machine. On the other hand, his education platform is to “ensure that change is meaningful,” as opposed to, I guess, the other kind. (He also wants to attract STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] teachers and promote bilingual education.)

Real education platforms

The other three candidates have relatively substantive education platforms that mark them as serious candidates.

Paul Perez, veteran of the U.S. Army and the Department of Homeland Security, supports “a number of the [U.S.] Department of Education’s current major education reform initiatives, including Race to the Top, the Investing in Innovation Fund, and Promise Neighborhoods.” He also advocates for expansion of preschools, extra-curricular activities, and STEM infusion.

Eric Jackson, on the other hand, is cut from more familiar cloth. Like everyone else he’s in favor of preschool expansion: as an Abbott district, Trenton is required to provide full-day preschool to all 3 and 4-year-olds but currently has only 1,800 slots. Jackson is extremely loyal to teachers and often praises them in his remarks. Unsurprisingly the Trenton Education Association endorsed him and saluted his pledge to select board members “without regard to political considerations.” Mostly, though, Jackson promises money. He explained on Saturday “I don’t believe we have enough money. We need legislators to understand our needs so we can have resources.” Indeed, Trenton gets less per pupil than other Abbotts, about $17,000 per year.

It’s Jim Golden, however, who, to paraphrase Walker Worthy, appears to subscribe to meaningful change. Golden is the only candidate among the six with a fully-fleshed out education plan that incorporates elements of reform – teacher evaluations based on student outcomes, data transparency, improved professional development for teachers – with expansion of traditional programs. He promises to “insist that the school board and superintendent cite goals and benchmarks to ensure that every student is proficient in reading, writing, and mathematics by the end of third grade, and that all students are ready for algebra by the eighth grade.”

Universal proficiency is quite a leap. At Trenton’s Gregory Elementary School, 18 percent of 3rd graders read at grade level. Then again, it’s quite a leap from Tony Mack to a competent and ethical mayor. For Trenton families and schoolchildren, May 13th can’t come too soon.


Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

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