Newark candidates seek three school board seats in New Jersey’s largest school system

A door with white signs and black words that says "Vote here today. Vote today. and Vote aqui hoy." There are people in the background inside the room.
Newark voters will choose among eight candidates for three school board seats in the 2023 school board race. (Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat)

Newark voters will choose from a list of new and returning candidates when they cast their ballots April 25 in this year’s school board election. 

Eight candidates are vying for three seats on the nine-member Newark Board of Education. Two board members are running for reelection along with two returning candidates and four newcomers. Newark residents will also vote on next school year’s budget, which is set for a public hearing at the end of the month.

Incumbents Josephine Garcia and Hasani Council are running for reelection with last year’s candidate, Allison James-Frison, on the “Moving Newark Schools Forward” slate. Historically, the slate has garnered support from state and local politicians, including Mayor Ras Baraka and state Senate Majority Leader M. Teresa Ruiz. 

Thomas Luna is also running again and is joined by newcomers Tawana Johnson-Emory and James Wright Jr. on the “Newark Kids Forward” slate, a team of local parents and teachers. First-time candidates Latoya Jackson and Ade’Kamil Kelly are also running. 

The three winning candidates will serve three-year terms. 

Annual school board election voter turnout has been low for years, hovering around 3%-4% of registered voters. Nonprofit groups like Project Ready have started work to increase Newark voter turnout and stressed the importance of participating in the school race, three years after the board voted to regain local control of its school system. 

Board members will make important decisions about policies to address learning loss in the district as well as mental health challenges among young people. They also will have to address the needs of students with disabilities as autism cases spike in the city and the growing number of English language learners in New Jersey’s largest school district. School board members also meet with district officials in monthly committee discussions on programs and instruction, personnel, policy, and finance, among other topics. The board also picks and holds the superintendent accountable.

Garcia was elected in 2017 and is one of the longest-serving board members. Council joined the board in 2020. James-Frison ran last year and is the founder of the Girls; Live, Love, Laugh organization that provides educational opportunities for Newark’s girls. 

Garcia, Council, James-Frison, and Jackson did not respond to questions on their candidacies. 

Luna also ran in last year’s school race and is a science teacher, and community organizer. His slate consists of newcomers Wright, a Newark teacher, and Johnson-Emory, a parent.  In an email, the slate candidates called themselves “the only grass-roots team” and “the only team funded by people.”

“The Newark Kids Forward team is running because now, more than ever, kids and families deserve independent champions, not political loyalists, who will fight for them daily,” wrote Luna in an email on behalf of his slate.  “We bring a community-built vision of what education can and should be for everyone.”

Kelly, a real estate agent and team leader at the Boys and Girls Club of Newark, is running for a seat on the board for the first time. He said he is tired of the lack of accountability in the district and has spoken at multiple board meetings about issues such as speeding near schools and problems with the Newark School for Architecture and Interior Design

“We have a $1.2 billion budget. You can’t play with that,” Kelly said. “When I look at the services and what our students are getting and what our schools are like, it doesn’t reflect that. We deserve better, we deserve accountability, we deserve leadership.”

Newark residents will also vote on the district’s 2023-24 school year budget set for a public hearing on March 29. The budget was $1.2 billion for the 2022-23 school year and included $138.3 million from the local tax levy. The district received roughly $1 billion in state aid. Last month, the district said the tax levy would remain the same this year.

Newark residents can vote in person April 25 at their designated polling location or by mail. 

Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org

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