Three Latinas Seek to Lead Belleville Board of Education

Candidates Olga Setteducato (left) and Erika V. Jacho (right) are running for seats on the Belleville Board of Education, to join board trustee Liza M. Lopez (center).

[Translator’s note: Six candidates are running for two open seats on the Belleville Board of Education in the Nov. 7 election. This story refers to two of the challengers, Erika V. Jacho and Olga Setteducato-Torres, who are teaming up with board trustee Liza M. López – whose term expires in 2020 – to increase the number of Latino officials in a predominantly Hispanic area.]

For the first time in the city’s history, a group of Latina women – formed by Belleville Board of Education trustee Liza M. López (LL), from Puerto Rico, Olga Torres (OT), from Peru and Erika Jacho (EJ), from Ecuador – are coming together to do something about education in an area where 70 percent of students are also Latino. Here are their proposals for the Belleville Board of Education, offered before the election scheduled for Nov. 7.

Why do we need Latino officials on the board?

LL: We represent the growing racial and cultural diversity of the city. Also, as Latina women, we know what our children need: no limitations on how we help them with their homework or whether we take them to school. We want to empower parents to get involved in improving education. I have a stepdaughter in middle school. I tutor her twice a week and I see what she needs.

OT: As Latina women, as immigrants, we are like warriors, in a good way. We have worked hard and fought tirelessly for every space we have in society in order to help our kids move forward. We want to do the same for our children in our schools.

How can parents be encouraged to take on a bigger role at schools?

LL: I think that, when they see a Puerto Rican, an Ecuadorean and a Peruvian woman on the board, parents will get closer to the schools.

EJ: I think this familiarity with us will make them become more involved.

Any specific projects?

EJ: My proposal is to have student ambassadors [on the board] for each classroom in our schools, as right now they are poorly represented.

(…)

What do Hispanic children need?

OT: We need to build an ESL program. There are some 2,000 Peruvian children born here who ignore their roots. One of our work plans is to set up after-school programs.  The three of us agree on that. For instance, Peruvian children have lost their roots, their relationship to the place where they come from, and we need dance programs, activities that remind them of their culture.

Is there discrimination in schools?

LL: Yes, we still have discrimination, and we want to change that. The objective is that, when the father or the mother sees more Hispanics who speak their language, who know what Hispanics go through in the U.S., who feel the same way they do, they will reach out to the board and take part in their children’s education and in the general development of their school.

They have written to us on Facebook, things like: “Do not bring Newark to Belleville.” That is discrimination. All this because I teach in Newark. I am an attorney and a teacher, I have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and a Ph.D. I am a person who is dedicated to teaching, to serving the community.

EJ: I came here when I was 5 and lived undocumented. At 12, I obtained my residence. When I graduated [high school] in 1998, I took my report card to my counselor and told him: “I want to apply to Monmouth University.” He told me: “They will not accept you. Go to Essex County Community College.” That is the type of discrimination I want to prevent. I was 18 and, had I not possessed the strong character I have thanks to my parents – who instilled in me the discipline to study and gave me strength – and to the threat of being deported by immigration, I would not have gone to college. My roots as an undocumented person are my fuel.

Are Belleville schools ready to welcome students from Puerto Rico who are set to leave or have left [the island] after the disaster?

LL: We already have three students who have arrived from Puerto Rico, and they are going to our schools. A school administrator has assured me that we have the capacity to welcome those who come here.

Do you support the referendum seeking to take a $48.3 million loan for improvements in Belleville schools?

LL: We recently had a problem with School 10. The bathrooms collapsed, and we had to transfer all children – some 120 – to a different school. Now the repairs will cost us much more because of the emergency. That is why I do support the referendum: so we can repair every school. If we continue down this path, the expense will be much bigger, and residents will be the ones who will end up paying more for the repairs. And, our children need better schools.

EJ: We must listen to voters. First, [the loan’s] approval is imminent. Second, we need to make sure that this money goes to the school district. However, children are the future of their community, of their families: If they do not have safe schools, the technology they need, they will not grow academically.

Will that increase property taxes?

OT: [The increase] will be $13 per month, it’s true. In exchange, we will have better schools.  It is the future of our children: mold-free schools with good air quality, with safe roofs. However, we want to clarify that the burden of this loan will not fall entirely on the shoulders of the local taxpayer. The state of New Jersey will contribute 48.9 percent.

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