Meet the Board of Education Candidates: Carol Lester, Gerald Lyons, Lorenzo Richardson, Angel Valentin

The Jersey City Board of Education elections are coming up fast on Nov. 5.

Three of the seats up for grabs have three-year terms; these seats are currently held by Carol Lester, Angel Valentin and vice president Sterling Waterman. The other seat available is for a one-year term and is currently held by Gerald Lyons, who was appointed by the BOE after the resignation of Marvin Adames last August.

Other current board members include president Sue Mack, Carol Harrison-Arnold, Vidya Gangadin, Sangeeta Ranade and Marilyn Roman.

According to the Hudson County Clerk’s Office there are 15 confirmed candidates running in November. Carol Lester and Angel Valenti are running for the one-year term. Those running for the three-year terms include Micheline Amy, Denise Davis, Jessica Daye, Telissa Dowling, Carol Gabriel, Susan Harbace, Gerald Lyons, DeJon Morris, Lorenzo Richardson, Ellen Simon, Gina Verdibello, and Kevaan Walton. (Peter Basso, Jay Cordero and Josephine Paige have withdrawn from the race.)

The four available seats will be occupied by the highest vote-getters. Elected board members will work as advocates for children and families of the district, act as advisors to Superintendent Marcia Lyles and the schools’ administrators as well as serve as liaisons between the schools and residents of the district.

Board members will undergo criminal history record checks through the state Department of Education within 30 days of election and will be sworn in at organizational meetings in January. The positions are unpaid.

JCI spoke to some of the candidates about their passion for education and vision for the school system in Jersey City. Here’s what we learned about a few of the candidates. Check back later this week to read more about the other candidates running on Nov. 5.

Carol Lester

Carol Lester

A BOE vet, Carol Lester, a Downtown Jersey City resident whose daughter attended the Learning Community Charter School and High Tech High School, is running for a one-year term.

Lester started serving on the board in April of 2010. “We did a lot of heavy lifting,” she said. “We changed the entire leadership structure in the central office…I chaired a number of committees. As the Science, Technology and Green Initiative chair, I spearheaded WiFi in every school and the implementation of more hands-on use of technology in the classroom across the curriculum.”

If re-elected, the award-winning singer-songwriter says she wants to continue pushing for more college courses available to high school students as well as decreasing the district’s dropout rate.

“I want zero dropouts and I want as many as possible of our high school students to be able to take college-level courses. I want to move everybody as high as they’re capable of going.”

She also wants to get more people invested in students’ success and involved in the decision-making process. “I believe that our teachers and our principals are the ones who can share their best practices…Our parents also need to be part of the process. They need more access to see the homework the children have and more support when things come up.”

The biggest challenges, she says, will be shrinking central budgets and “finger-pointing instead of uniting to solve problems.” Lester says she and her running-mates–the Candidates for Excellence slate also includes Jessica Rosero Dave, Micheline Amy and Ellen Simon–will fight against these to get things done.

“There’s something about the energy and imperative of mothers who have children in the district or in school right now. Mothers insist that things get done quickly. Mothers know things need to get done yesterday and if they weren’t, let’s fix them and get them done now. We keep the focus on the children all the time.”

Gerald Lyons

Gerald Lyons

While Gerald Lyons, 54, has only been on the board for a little over a year, he has taught various subjects at County Prep High School, a Hudson County School of Technology, since 1987 and knows firsthand what teachers and students need.

The Heights resident, who has no children, has attended meetings and workshops statewide to learn more about education since he became a board member in Sept. 2012. Along with his personal experience as a teacher and president of the Hudson County chapter of the New Jersey School Board Association, he says if elected to a three-year term, he will be equipped to accomplish his three main goals, especially with help from the rest of the Children First slate with Valentin as well as Gina Verdibello and Lorenzo Richardson.

“I’d like to continue working as a chairperson for the special education committee. It’s a very rewarding process…other districts try to use our services because we have a well-oiled machine here.

“I also want to continue my biggest fight…for more communication. People would like to know more about what’s going on and get more input on the decisions being made in the district. I hope it continues where everyone feels what they say is valued and it can be most productive if people say, ‘This is an area of weakness. How can we make it stronger?'”

He also wants to see more equity in the system. As an example, he pointed out that the board recently approved three online courses to be offered at McNair Academic High School, which is consistently one of the best secondary schools in the state and country.

“I’m thrilled McNair has it, but it should be made available to every other high school in Jersey City. It’s online. What is the structure you need for the course? Access to a computer, which I think most students have,” he says. “Many schools could benefit. Kids who are not as focused or mature, when they start taking college courses, they realize how much they have to step up to the plate.”

The biggest challenges, he says, are new demands from the state which sometimes result in previous education staples like cursive writing or geography getting left behind.

“Teachers are trying to do everything they can…Students pass tests and teachers are evaluated based on how many students pass the tests…There’s more and more teaching to the test and I’m worried what that will do to stifle creativity.”

Lorenzo Richardson

Lorenzo Richardson

Lorenzo Richardson, 43, who was born and raised in Jersey City and lives in the Greenville neighborhood, is about to have even more at stake in his run for a three-year term–he and his wife are expecting their first child early next year.

The Ferris High School graduate, who was near the top of his class and voted Most Likely to Succeed, says he aims to “restore trust, transparency and true commitment” to the public schools.

“My (Children First) teammate Gerald Lyons and I are very keen on the transparency issue. The Strike Force debacle is a prime example of what happens when the entire board and community are left out of decisions pertaining to our children,” he says, referring to the district’s decision to have armed guards from the Union-based company at various school facilities without first notifying parents, which invited much criticism according to the Jersey Journal.

Richardson, who is an accounting manager at the Urban League of Hudson County, says he and the other board members will be facing some big challenges like the threat of school closures and job loss, high-stakes testing, low parent and community involvement, inadequate facilities, low test scores and inequity in access to quality education and resources.

He has a clear vision, however, of what needs to be done. “(I would like to) bring the district back under local control, get politics out of the school system, ensure that all children are treated equally under the law and provided a quality education and fully renovate and provide central air conditioning in every school that does not have it…bring back full recess, restore vocational programs and add technology and STEM programs to the curriculum,” says Richardson, who also wants to increase parental involvement and have schools open earlier for breakfast and stay open later for recreational activities and after-school help.

He also has specific goals he wants to accomplish with help from his running-mates. “I will work with my teammate Gina Verdibello in her initiative to remove all trailers from schools and have a maximum 15:1 teacher-student classroom ratio,” he says, adding that he wants to work closely with the recreation, police and health and human service divisions of the city government.

“The human services piece is something that I as a social and civil rights activist and Angel Valentin as a social and employment activist will take on fully,” he says. “We know what the community needs and where to find the resources to assist them.”

Angel Valentin

Angel Valentin

Born and raised in Jersey City, Angel Valentine, 58-year-old Bergen-Lafayette resident has strong ties to Jersey City and its school system. Besides having two children who graduated from local public schools (Angel Jr., 19, from Ferris High School, now heading to culinary school, and Krystal, 23, a McNair Academic and Princeton graduate) and being a Ferris graduate himself, Valentin has been serving on the board since 2002 when he was appointed by the commissioner of education.

Since 2002, Valentin has been re-elected three times. This year, he’s running on the Children First slate looking to be elected for a one-year term so he can continue working toward his vision of a school system that addresses students’ socioeconomic challenges and helps them succeed.

From his experience as a social worker, Valentin has seen court cases and worked with employment training programs where he says he saw local youth problems firsthand.

“A lot of these youngsters, the grandmothers have custody, the parents are incarcerated or deceased…those are the students we need to grab and provide with supportive services.”

Valentin is pushing for vocational and trade programs, after-school extracurricular activities and peer-to-peer tutoring to be established in schools throughout the system. “We need a mentoring program where high-achieving students can help struggling students,” he says. “I think we’ll see more success if we allow that to happen.”

More attention also needs to be given to what’s going on inside the classrooms, he adds.

“In 24 years of state control…every time we make progress the administration changes,” says Valentin, who has seen four governors and seven education commissioners come and go since he’s been on the board. “We need to get local control. The curriculum is a mess. How can you establish and test students? They’re not learning. That’s because we’re not teaching. We have to go back to teaching.”

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Photos courtesy of the respective candidates

More Nov 5th Pre-Election Coverage:

Summer Dawn Hortillosa

is a freelance arts and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in the Jersey City Independent, The Jersey Journal, the International and other publications. She is also a creative writer and theatrical director.