Meet the School Board Candidates: Azam Riaz, Patricia Sebron and Mario Gonzalez

By • Apr 14th, 2009 • Category: Featured, News, Politics
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There are three open seats on the city’s Board of Education (BOE) up for grabs in this year’s election, which will take place on April 21. This year will also be the first year the public can vote on the local tax levy that funds the school system, as the city slowly regains control of the district from the state.

The Independent, with the help of education advocates and community leaders, drew up a short questionnaire and sent it to all 12 candidates. We are publishing their responses in the order which we received them, three at a time. This is the second in the series. You can read the first here.

Without further ado, see what Azam Riaz, Patricia Sebron and Mario Gonzalez have to say about the BOE.


AZAM RIAZ

Azam Riaz has lived majority of his life in Jersey City. He is an accountant for a New York City firm, and serves as a steward for the National Treasury Employees Union. He is also running for City Council in Ward E.

Why do you want to serve on the school board?

I would like to serve on the BOE because the current education system has glaring issues. There are many positives but they are not being used in the proper manner. The Jersey City school system has a big budget but it is not being used efficiently or effectively. There are many extracurricular activities available through the school system but there is low student involvement in certain activities. The teachers are a great asset but the current BOE does not offer the teachers proper resources and training to be successful in the classroom.

What qualifications would you bring to the position?

I have many qualifications that I bring to the system. I am only a few years removed from the education system, so I bring a fresh face, a fresh start. I have an MBA in global management from Fairleigh Dickinson University. I have a background in auditing/accounting, so I will be able to locate the issues in the budget. One of the first things with respect to the budget that will be performed is an efficiency audit at every level of the school system and the waste will be remedied. I am also a teacher of a Sunday school so I know what motivates students. Teaching them with real life examples and participation of the students provides for a lighter environment

If elected, how will you make yourself accessible to parents, students and teachers? Conversely, how will you keep abreast of the school communities’ needs and concerns?

I will make myself accessible to the teachers via parent/BOE meetings. There will be office hours for teachers, students and parents. There will be forums that will be held for teachers, students and parents. There will be a public website in which all complaints and request for meetings can be filed. This will be provided to the students to lodge any complaints or areas that can be improved. A full inquiry would be undertaken to address the areas of concern and any complaints.

Through a series of meetings and notices, the parents will be provided up-to-date information with respect to the education system.

What do you think are the three most pressing issues from Jersey City’s public schools right now?

The most pressing issues are the improper usage of the budget, ineffective utilization of the teachers in the classroom and an inability to provide an effective curriculum for the students.

What is your opinion on charter schools and how they fit into the overall mission of the Board of Education?

I believe we should have as many options as possible. Charter schools can fit into the system and overall mission of the Board of Education if the students are benefiting. If the result of the charter schools is the same as the current system, then there is no benefit in charter schools.

Do you believe the public schools are overcrowded?  If so, how would you propose changing that?

Certain schools are overcrowded. One way to change the student overload is by restricting open enrollment from other municipalities into Jersey City. We would keep open enrollment available only within the Jersey City district. If the problem persisted, then we would restrict open enrollment to certain areas.

Do you think the instruction at the schools can be improved, and if so, how?

Instruction at schools can be improved if we deemphasize teaching towards the test. If the entire curriculum is designed to pass one test, then there is no real learning. All the students get is a yearlong preparation course that specialized institutions provide for a few dollars compared to the $20,000 per student per annum. It is important that we teach the students about real life scenarios. Real life does not consist of one test on an annual basis. Real life consists of constant challenges. The students should be able to make mistakes and learn from their mistakes. The teachers should be able to experiment within certain parameters to enhance the learning abilities of the students in the classrooms. The teachers are frightened that they will be reprimanded if they deviate from the curriculum.

There is currently only one curriculum for every student in the school system. Do you think that is the best approach to education?

We have to get rid of the cookie cutter, one size fits all approach. We should institute other methods of learning. One way we can change the education is by having local businesses getting involved in the education process by serving as mentors. We need to institute mentorships, internships, and apprenticeships into the school system. Students should be involved with CEOs of companies, elected officials in the political system, officials of the BOE, and make available many other vocational learning experiences.

Speaking of curriculum, we know that the JC BOE can’t directly do anything about federal law, but what is your opinion of No Child Left Behind?

The majority of the teachers that I have contacted are not great fans of the NCLB. The law reauthorized a number of federal programs aimed at improving the performance of US primary and secondary schools by increasing the standards of accountability for states, school districts, and schools, as well as providing more flexibility in choosing which schools their children will attend. NCLB enacts the theories of standards-based education reform, which is based on the belief that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in education. Although this was the aim, the NCLB has not improved the education system — it may have contributed to the further decline of the public education system.

Would you prefer an elected, appointed, or hybrid school board for Jersey City?

If we had an appointed board, we would never be able to rid ourselves of nepotism or favoritism. One group and its friends and families would be in control of the system for life. I believe that the elected position is the best method. Hybrid boards would lead to similar results as the appointed boards.

Anything else you’d like to add?

As a concerned parent, I am trying to make a difference in the Jersey City school system.

Sometimes I think that we may be better off without the public school system and privatize the education system with the government providing tax dollars to the residents of the community. For example, St. Peter’s Prep provides an education for a little less than $10,000 per year, but the public education system is costing $16,000 to $22,000 per student on annual basis. It appears that the private education system is appropriate, but there are issues with private education system such as teachers receive lesser pay, no pensions, very few perks and benefits matching the public school system. The teachers are human beings and they deserve a high quality of life just like any other individual in any other profession.  So, we are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place.

PATRICIA SEBRON

Patricia Sebron, a lifelong Jersey City resident, is retired from her position as a human resources vice president at NJ Transit. She is active in her community and at her church, Christ the King.

Why do you want to serve on the school board?

I am a 63-year-old retired executive who is not only a lifelong resident of Jersey City but also a product of the Jersey City Public School System. For several years I considered running for the board because I believe I have a skill set and personal commitment that lends itself to the work that is being done on behalf of the children of this city. After repeatedly listening to the urging of our president to become more involved I realize that it was time for me to run.

What qualifications would you bring to the position?

I am a hard worker; I am passionate about the safety, education and overall well-being of our children. I have a set of skills that have been developed over the years from my work experience and community involvement which will serve me well as a member of the board.

If elected, how will you make yourself accessible to parents, students and teachers? Conversely, how will you keep abreast of the school communities’ needs and concerns?

By doing my homework.

What do you think are the three most pressing issues for Jersey City’s public schools right now?

Funding, education of the total child, maintaining our early childhood education program, and reducing the drop-out rate.

What is your opinion on charter schools and how they fit into the overall mission of the Board of Education?

There is a place for the creative approaches that the better charter schools use.

Do you believe the public schools are overcrowded? If so, how would you propose changing that?

I don’t know.

Do you think the instruction at the schools can be improved, and if so, how?

School instruction, like most other things in life, can always be improved.

There is currently only one curriculum for every student in the school system. Do you think that is the best approach to education?

I am not knowledgeable enough about the curriculum to answer that question at this time.

Speaking of curriculum, we know that the JC BOE can’t directly do anything about federal law, but what is your opinion of No Child Left Behind?

I believe that education is more than testing, testing, testing. We must educate the child and not teach to the test.

Would you prefer an elected, appointed, or hybrid school board for Jersey City?

I certainly do not think that the school board should be appointed. I have not crystallized my thoughts on a fully elected or hybrid composition.

MARIO GONZALEZ

Mario Gonzalez is the founder and CEO of the Hope Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, located in Jersey City Heights.

Why do you want to serve on the school board?

I have lived a life dedicated to my community, the arts, and children. I am an independent conservative dedicated to bringing change to our educational system and improving our children’s academic prospects. I plan to do this by taking decisive action to make the necessary improvements short term. I really believe that if we make the right changes to the BOE we will in turn change our schools and ultimately our children’s/city’s future. We must regain control of our schools as a community.

What qualifications would you bring to the position?

I have been a community leader and educator for over 38 years. I have corporate management experience in multiple fields, including the establishing and auditing of government regulated procurement and material management systems. Additionally, I have the community’s pulse on things that matter to them and can speak on their behalf without the undue influence of others.

If elected, how will you make yourself accessible to parents, students and teachers? Conversely, how will you keep abreast of the school communities’ needs and concerns?

I am, and continue to be, a community leader serving in Jersey City Heights for almost 14 years. I have an excellent reputation and a wonderful relationship with our neighborhood associations in the Heights and have worked with both democratic and republican administrations, citizen’s groups, the Jersey City and Hudson County Police departments, the Jersey City Fire Department, the Jersey City Public Library, the Jersey City Museum and our own Central Avenue business community to improve our neighborhoods. I have a long history of availability. Because of this, I am also kept informed of what issues are on the forefront for our residents.

What do you think are the three most pressing issues for Jersey City’s public schools right now?

Based on published standardized test results, if graded on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being a perfect score and 1 being the bottom of the barrel), Jersey City’s elementary schools rank 1.4, our middle schools rank 2.6, and our high schools rank a 2.3. Based on these (state High Proficiency Assessment) results, it is evident that Jersey City’s public schools rank at the bottom of the state academically. A perpetuation of this pattern of performance will not only irrevocably affect the future success of our children, but it negatively impacts property values and detracts from the general attractiveness of our city. Beyond this, the gang and drug related violence, both within and outside of the classroom makes proper teaching extremely difficult, as maintaining discipline is key in a proper teaching environment.

My three major immediate goals would be:

1. To do everything possible to better the academic performance of our kids in the classroom. This will involve a deep scrutiny of curriculum, teacher performance, and environmental conditions (facilities, equipment, etc.) affecting instruction.

2. To restore an emphasis on arts education system wide. This will help to instill discipline in the kids, which many graduate studies have shown transfers over to their academic performance.

3. To give teachers control over their classrooms. A teacher cannot teach if she/he cannot establish control in their classroom. This is an absolute must if we are to get out of the academic quagmire into which we have slipped. We need to isolate disruptive behavior so that our teachers are allowed to actually teach.

Secondary Goals would include:

1. To review and revise the budget in order to drastically reduce the enormous waste in the system and simultaneously promote private corporate investment in the education of our children for new, cutting edge academic projects aimed at creating an appropriate global learning environment.

2. To actively market to parents in order to gain parental participation in both the education of their children, and the administration of our schools.

3. To move the date of the School Board Elections to coincide with municipal elections, thereby guaranteeing the maximum participation of the electorate.

What is your opinion on charter schools and how they fit into the overall mission of the Board of Education?

In New York City, Chicago, Washington, and other cities throughout our country, charter schools have played a significant role in the “tool bag” of methods used for turning failing schools systems around. In light of the abysmal achievement level of our kids on standardized tests in Jersey City, particularly in comparison with other public schools throughout our state, I believe that no option, including charter schools, should be removed from consideration.

Practically, charter schools are less expensive to run and have held their own in our city. Some of them have performed at the top 14 percent in our state. Conversely, our elementary schools rank (on average) at the bottom 14 percent in the state. Our middle and high schools don’t do much better. The situation is dire.

Do you believe the public schools are overcrowded? If so, how would you propose changing that?

Yes. We must build more schools (of all types) and do our best to partner with the private sector to form public/private cooperatives in education. We need to build global schools equipped with state of the art technology that will help us to form a “global” child equipped to enter a global market.

Do you think the instruction at the schools can be improved, and if so, how?

Here’s the truth: Though we, for the most part, have good teachers within our system that need our support, our support must extend beyond merely throwing money at the problem. We have done this for years with dismal results. True change in our system necessitates a grass-roots effort to reconnect with parents and deal with systemic inconsistencies that affect a teacher’s ability to teach. The community at large must partner with our educators in the rearing and education of our children.

There is currently only one curriculum for every student in the school system. Do you think that is the best approach to education?

No. Children learn differently. Magnet schools and specialized schools, particularly in areas such as the arts and science have yielded wonderful results in cities throughout the U.S.

Speaking of curriculum, we know that the JC BOE can’t directly do anything about federal law, but what is your opinion of No Child Left Behind?

It was a start. Generally, it is reported to have helped narrow the performance gap on standardized tests between children of varying ethnic backgrounds. I believe that the establishment of achievement standards is critical to measuring success. That being said, we can go overboard to the extent that the general “education” of the child is compromised. We must develop a more “balanced” approach in my opinion.

Would you prefer an elected, appointed, or hybrid school board for Jersey City?

Elected.



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is the former co-founder of the Jersey City Independent; he now works for a public-policy nonprofit in Trenton.
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