Talking to: Ellen Simon

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Ellen Simon – wearing a blue top – and friends, and the kickoff of her school board run, in 2013. All pictures in this article are courtesy Ellen Simon. 

Unless you have children enrolled in school – and even if you do – the school board might seem like some far-off, difficult-to-understand institution. We all know the importance of good teachers and principals, of smaller class sizes and good facilities, and yet the role of the board in delivering all this seems hazy and unclear to the casual observer.

So let’s start with the basics: the JC school board is a nine-member committee that is elected by the public. Each member’s term is three years; it’s an unpaid position. It is the final authority in the school district – the Superintendent answers to the board. If there’s going to be a new school built, the BOE must approve it. Rename a school? Again – that must be brought to the board. An addition to the holiday calendar? Talk to the board.

JC schools have over 28,000 students in forty different schools, so this affects a lot of people. And these days, it’s not just that schools teach reading and writing; they provide meals to students and can be save havens for kids with no place to go before and after school. Schools are now integral not only in giving children an education, but in providing important basic services communities have come to depend upon. If somehow all that isn’t enough, we know anecdotally that a good public school in your neighborhood can cause your property values to increase and overall crime to decrease.

So it’s probably not a surprise that getting elected to the school board is such a contentious issue. This past election cycle, we saw things devolve to the point where grown men were breaking out into physical altercations at debates (seriously! If you click on no other link in this entire post, click on that one – it includes mention of face licking!). Even more troubling, outside groups poured nearly $600,000 into their candidates, the only school board race in the state to attract such money. The school board is a big deal.

Ellen Simon was a mom to a toddler when she ran for – and won – a spot on the school board in 2013. She chose not to run for re-election and her term ended in December. I conducted this email interview with Ellen last week, and I was curious to hear about her experiences. The interview is long – very long – so I’ve divided it up into sections below. If you’d rather jump to the full article, you can click on this link.

Her views are her own, and much of what she says below is controversial. While I wasn’t privy to many of the specific situations she refers to, I will mention that in the short period of time that I’ve known her, I have found her to be of the utmost integrity and passion when it comes to our schools. The first question I always ask myself when I meet someone running for elected office is, are they in it for the right reasons? Meaning, do they genuinely have a desire to serve their community above and beyond whatever their personal gain may be? To that, I can definitely answer that Ellen absolutely did when she was running, and does to this day.

– Amy


Q: How did you first get involved with the public schools in JC?
ES: When our son was a baby in 2010, my husband and I ran into one of my old friends, who had older kids. He went on and on about how the schools were under state control, the size of the budget, how poor student outcomes were, etc.

I said to my husband, “Remember when we used to get pissed off by stuff like this?”

I had never been involved in politics at any level, but a couple months later, I was volunteering for then-councilman Steven Fulop’s slate of school board candidates. I became the mom with a diaper bag full of campaign lit, accosting strangers on the playground about the Board of Education election. I think our son’s first full phrase, as a toddler, was “School Board election.”

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What was running for school board like?
I had the great fortune of running with Micheline Amy, who is a superb human resources executive, and Jessica Daye, an alumna of McNair and Columbia University and a professional special needs advocate. Both of them are women of great intelligence, calm, character and integrity. We spent so much time together that after we all got elected, Jessica’s husband, Paul, who makes jewelry, made us all really lovely rings. I plan to keep mine forever.

Running for office in Jersey City in 2013 was, in many ways, like running in 1913 probably was. There are still parades to march in, doors to knock, ward leaders to meet. It’s still very hard to win without the support of the city’s political bosses.

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In general, what do you think of the public schools here? Where do they excel?
When my son was a toddler, I met someone new who said, moments after meeting me, “Of course you’re not sending your child to the Jersey City public schools.”

I said, “Of course I am.”

We did not become friends for life.

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Where do they fall short?
One piece of data we got on the Board was about teacher absenteeism. While the vast majority of our teachers are hard-working and diligent, a few of our schools struggle with a handful of teachers who are chronically absent.

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Specifically, do you have any particular experiences or anecdotes as they relate to the schools? Anything you’ve noticed as the mother of a kid in a public school? Or in visits that you made to schools while on the Board?
As one friend said, “We’re not religious people; we don’t go to church or synagogue. Our school is our community.”

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What was serving on the Board like?
I thought I was cynical when I got into this. As it turns out, I wasn’t cynical enough.

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While on the Board, did you notice any long-time practices in the district that hold schools back?

I heard a retired administrator speak who talked about how he brought his friends and relatives to the former superintendent, and how they all got hired.

When I mentioned this to an old-timer, the old-timer told me that the speaker had 50 relatives on payroll.

Fifty.

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Was the BOE a well-functioning body?

A partial highlight reel of the last 13 months: A clip of a board member screaming at the Superintendent during a meeting. A clip of the board trying to name a school after a sitting board member when the community wanted it named after Pres. Barack Obama. An article about one board member suing the board president. An article about a board member resigning after a dunderheaded Facebook post.
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Why should people vote in the BOE elections? The answer seems pretty simple and direct if you have kids in the system, but what if you don’t? Why is it important for people without school-aged children to pay attention?

The Board of Education is one of the places in our democracy where your voice really can make a difference.

Your vote on BOE campaigns matters: Someone really did win by one vote once. I won by, if I recall, 189.

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What role can the community play in creating better schools? 

There’s so much the community can do.

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What did you learn over the last four years of your service? What would you do better, differently? And what are you most proud of?
I learned that with the right leadership, urban schools can change for the better, and real outcomes for students can improve dramatically. I learned that change doesn’t have to be glacial; real improvements can happen quickly.

What I’m most proud of are the tremendous strides the district has made and continues to make. I know I keep saying this, but it’s a testament to the hard work and dedication of staffers at every level, from security guards to senior administrators.

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Prefer to read it all at once? Here’s the interview in full.