What impact will Trenton’s next mayor have on the city schools?

At the mayoral forum Saturday morning “Setting Trenton’s Education Agenda,” sponsored by the Citizens Campaign at the Living Hope Empowerment Center, five mayoral contenders proposed remedies to ameliorate this city’s troubled school system.

While there was consensus on the need for a greater emphasis on vocational and recreational services for the 13,000 students enrolled in Trenton Public Schools, candidates differed on issues of reform, funding, and accountability.

Hovering above the animated audience and the mayoral hopefuls was the specter of Trenton’s former mayor, Tony Mack, who was the subject of a U.S. Justice Department investigation into bribery, fraud, extortion, and money laundering and was convicted on all counts, and removed from office Feb 26.  Trenton Councilman George Muschal is currently serving as acting mayor. 

The five mayoral hopefuls who gave prepared remarks and answered pre-screened questions were Eric Gordon, Jim Golden, Kathy McBride, Paul Perez, and Walker Worthy. The sixth, former North Ward Councilman Bucky Leggett, was a no-show.

Their focus was Trenton Public Schools, beset by a litany of woes: a 48 percent graduation rate, a $10.5 million deficit in its annual $267 million operating budget, pending layoffs of 77 employees, the fiscal burden of expanding charter schools, and a five-year displacement of almost 2,000 students while Trenton Central High is rebuilt.

Additionally, Superintendent Francisco Duran is a finalist for the top job in Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Maryland. The school board there was scheduled to announce its choice last week but deferred the decision until May.

Mayoral candidates’ views

Eric Jackson is widely regarded as the front runner for the May 13th election. He can prevent a run-off only by garnering 50 percent of the vote, an unlikely scenario given the number of candidates.

Certainly, Jackson, Plainfield’s director of Public Works and Urban Development and former Director of Public Works in Trenton, has the teachers’ vote sewn up. Last week the Trenton Education Association unanimously endorsed his campaign, citing his belief that “privatization and vouchers are harmful to the majority of Trenton’s students” and Jackson’s commitment to appointing “qualified members of the board of education who have deep roots in the community.” (Trenton’s school board is a “Type 2” board with members appointed by the mayor, unlike the majority of N.J.’s school boards, which are elected by residents.)

Jackson stressed his support of teachers in Trenton’s traditional public schools—by September one in four students will attend charter schools—by focusing his remarks on his promise to “be supportive of the public school system” by “giving teachers the resources to close the achievement gap.” A Jackson Administration would be committed to bringing in after-dark programs and “equity of education for all,” and he intends to establish an office of public education because “there’s not enough support on the outside for teachers on the inside.”

Walker Worthy, former teacher, current Deputy Clerk of Mercer County, and favorite son of the county Democratic party, is also full of support for Trenton’s traditional school system. He reiterated throughout the morning that “our schools are working” and “our kids are graduating” and (contrary to fact) “the graduation rate is higher than 48 percent.” “Everything is not bad in Trenton,” he insisted. “We have some of the best teachers and custodians…We have to talk about the good news in Trenton.”

Worthy concluded that “waste is a big problem” and “I want site-based management” (whereby individuals schools largely control their own budgets). “The secretaries and custodians know exactly where the waste is. We need to cut administrators and kick them into the schools where they belong and out of the administration building on Clinton Avenue.”

Candidate Jim Golden, former City Police Director, has a different approach. “Where I come from,” he said, “education is opportunity and there is no greater issue in Trenton than dealing with our public schools.” He added, “I don’t care where they come from, I don’t care what you call them: public, charter, it’s still the public system.”

“I’m going to have a school board that embraces the idea of accountability, and that means change…empowering people to hold themselves accountable and not just spew rhetoric. Stop the confrontation between adults…put Trenton’s children first.”

Golden also favors “competent leadership” of both the schools and the city, and announced that his administration would “meet with philanthropic organizations to keep our youth out of trouble” and “reach out to our partners in state and federal governments to access funding streams.”

Paul Perez, a military man and veteran of Operation Desert Storm,” alluded to Trenton’s scars from Tony Mack—”our children suffer while we play political football with their health and education”—and talked money. Trenton gets $266 million from the state, he noted, “and we have to figure out what [the board of education] is doing with the money. Twenty thousand dollars per student is a private school education. How did we lose $2.5 million and no one worries about it?”

Current Councilwoman Kathy McBride proposed “a sixteen hour school day” from “8 a.m. to 8 p.m.,” and had some thoughts on funding. “Four years ago,” she declared to her opponents on the podium,”we had a superintendent who we were trying to buy out…where were you when that money was being shelled out? We can’t afford these johnny-come-latelys. Look to Mrs. McBride!”

On the other hand, candidate Jackson seemed less concerned with waste. In fact, he said, “we need more money” for our public schools. “I don’t believe we have enough money.” What’s the solution? “We have to have a great relationship with state and county governments” because “without their help money won’t come our way.”

Trenton’s mayoral election is scheduled for May 13 and the winner will take office July 1.

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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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