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Newark Board of Education members choose new president, co-vice presidents

People stand behind a large desk as a school board member is sworn into office.

Newly elected Newark Board of Education members were officially sworn in at the May 2023 reorganization meeting.

Jessie Gomez/ Chalkbeat Newark

Five years after New Jersey’s largest school system returned to local control, newly elected Board of Education members — all part of the “Moving Newark Schools Forward” slate endorsed by state and local politicians — were officially sworn in.

Incumbents Josephine Garcia and Hasani Council were reinstated to their roles and newcomer Allison James-Frison took on her new duties. The board also elected members Asia Norton as new president and Vereliz Santana and Dawn Haynes as co-vice presidents during Thursday’s meeting, where parents, district employees, family members, and community leaders filled the room.  

According to Essex County election data posted online, 5,408 people, just over 3% of Newark voters, cast ballots in this year’s school board election.

Voters also passed Newark Public Schools’ $1.3 billion budget, which is earmarked to expand teaching positions and “aggressively” tackle learning loss driven by the pandemic by continuing to support programs such as tutoring, among other items. 

“I’m not new to the policies and I’m not new to what education excellence should look like,” said James-Frison, a social worker and nonprofit founder as she addressed the boardroom for the first time. 

Newark regained full control of its school system in 2018, ending 25 years of state intervention that seized power from the local community and fundamentally reshaped New Jersey’s largest district. The board is responsible for holding Superintendent Roger León accountable and ensuring the district’s progress after state control. 

Newly elected board members will serve a three-year term and must work to address the most pressing issues in Newark schools including, learning loss in the district as well as mental health challenges among young people, chronic absenteeism, and graduation rates. They will also have to address the needs of students with disabilities as autism cases spike across the city and state along with the growing number of English language learners in New Jersey’s largest school district. 

“The only way we will continue to make progress and expedite that progress is if we continue to come together and work together,” Norton, the new board president, said Thursday. “Our children are depending on the people in this room.”

Before giving their inaugural speeches, Garcia, Council, and James-Frison took turns calling up family members, friends, and campaign volunteers as they were sworn in by the district’s general counsel, Brenda Liss. They read their oath of office statements noting their requirement to uphold the law and “impartially and justly perform all the duties.”

At the meeting, Council abstained from voting on all three board leadership appointments citing issues with the makeup of the board.

“My abstentions were not against my board colleagues. It was because I believe we should have had a totally reorganized board and the makeup of our leadership needed to look different,” Council added during the meeting.

During the meeting, a member of the public who took issue with Norton’s charter school background as a former teacher at North Star Academy, KIPP NJ, and Marion P. Thomas Charter School, interrupted the meeting as board members read the code of ethics. She paced around the front of the room, shouting as security guards surrounded her and asked her to leave.

Board members also voted to reconfirm seating arrangements so the board’s president could sit next to its two vice presidents. The board’s new leadership includes two Black women and a Latina. 

The Newark Board of Education will meet virtually on Saturday, May 20 for its annual retreat board meeting and in person at George Washington Carver Elementary School on Thursday, May 25 for its regular school board meeting. 

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

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