NJ City Council forgives embattled board member despite opposition

NJ City Council forgives embattled board member despite opposition

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Hackensack School Board Trustee Frances Cogelja said she wouldn’t resign, despite writing in February that she was “disgusted and appalled” with New Jersey’s new law requiring public schools to teach LGBT history.

The law, which was enacted in February, requires middle and high schools to include lessons about the political, economic and social contributions of LGBT individuals — starting in the 2020-21 school year. The law doesn’t apply to private schools.

At a June 25 Hackensack City Council meeting attended by about 50 people, city officials said they accepted Cogelja’s apology and declined to call for her resignation.

“We believe Mrs. Cogelja has learned from this situation about the need for everyone to be respectful for each other,” said Mayor John Labrosse. “And while we understand that some people may disagree, we personally accept her apology.”

The public acceptance of Cogelja’s apology came after Labrosse and City Council members received an open letter asking for her resignation from faith leaders and community organizations including NAACP (Bergen County Chapter), Women for Progress, ACLU of New Jersey and Rev. Carolyn Davis, among others.

“We, the undersigned faith leaders, community organizations, and individuals representing the rich diversity of Hackensack, stand in solidarity with our LGBTQ community and strongly condemn the homophobic comments made by Hackensack Board of Education Trustee Frances Cogelja,” the letter began.  “She is unfit to serve her constituents, faithfully implement New Jersey’s LGBTQ-Inclusive Curriculum Law, or protect LGBTQ-identified students. We are urging you to pass a resolution calling for her resignation.”

Cogelja’s “homophobic comments” referenced in the letter were found in emails, sent in February, to Acting Superintendent Rosemary Marks.

“I find it repugnant that [someone’s] sexual preferences have anything to do with their contributions or achievements in society,” Cogelja wrote. “We have a large percentage of kids who cannot read or do math at their grade level, and our governor thinks we should be wasting valuable instruction time on this nonsense. I am disgusted and appalled. I fear where we are headed as a nation. Everywhere I turn, this alternate lifestyle narrative is being shoved done our children’s throats. Where does it end?”

Cogelja also asked whether she as a parent had a right to opt out of the LGBT curriculum.  Marks told her she could request to opt out.

“Ms. Cogelja has a right to submit a request to opt out,” Marks told PGN. “It doesn’t mean we can guarantee it. That request would then go to the State Department of  Education so we could get guidance from the department on how to proceed. The school district is fully committed to implementing the new law and providing an inclusive curriculum.”

Cogelja couldn’t be reached for comment for this story.

At a June 17 school-board meeting, Cogelja delivered remarks during the school-board meeting, “The intention of my email to Acting Superintendent Marks was to explore what my options were as it pertains to curriculum which I feel may be uncomfortable for my child and which may spark conversations that we prefer to have at home. We are a faith-filled family with conservative views. I understand now that my remarks can be seen in a very different and more troubling light. It was never my intention to disparage any person who has a different sexual orientation from my own. I apologize to anyone who was hurt or offended… I would also like to say that I did not violate school board ethics. And I will never resign from my seat on the board because I am an integral part of a team that has a lot of important work to do.”

Afterward, several attendees publicly urged her to resign.

Pat Henry, a Hackensack resident, told Cogelja: “Hackensack has no place for that kind of hateful rhetoric in our schools. Even if you were speaking personally out of concern for your daughter you are a trustee and you have no business being on this board making decisions for LGBTQ people in our community. You need to resign.”

School board members assured those in attendance that the new law will be fully implemented, despite Cogelja’s remarks.

Toward  the end of the June 17 school-board meeting, Cojelja supplemented her initial apology saying she had a “knee-jerk reaction” and made an “error” sending the email from her school account.

U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Bob Menendez blasted Cogelja’s email: “New Jerseyans take pride in our rich diversity and the invaluable contributions made by each and every community to our neighborhoods, economy, arts, and culture.  Our LGBTQ community is essential to the fabric of our state’s identity as a warm and inclusive place to live.

“To preserve this strong sense of community and solidarity, we must be united in the goal of teaching New Jersey’s children the history of the LGBTQ community and the incredible contributions it continues to have on our state.

“Hackensack Board of Education Trustee Frances Cogelja’s comments are discriminatory, hurtful and simply do not represent New Jersey values.”

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy echoed those sentiments. “I was proud to sign legislation requiring public school districts to teach LGBTQ history. Hackensack Board of Education Trustee Frances Cogelja’s recent statements do not represent our values of inclusion and understanding,”

At least two state lawmakers who represent Hackensack called on Cogelja to resign.

New Jersey Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37) and State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37) called on Cogelja to resign.

“Frances Cogelja must resign,” Weinberg said, in a statement. “State law requires curriculum to cover LGBTQ contributions and history be taught. If a Board of Education Trustee member finds that so repugnant, she shouldn’t be a Board trustee.”

But state Assemblyman Gordon M. Johnson (D-37) said he also accepted Cogelja’s apology. “Let her constituents decide whether she should leave office when she’s up for reelection in April 2021,” Johnson told PGN.

Jon Oliveira, director of communications and membership at Garden State Equality, said Cogelja wasn’t qualified to serve on the board.  “Every education official across New Jersey must understand that New Jersey’s LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum law must be faithfully implemented,” he told PGN. “The remarks made by the Hackensack trustee show that she is not qualified to serve the educational needs of our youth or protect and affirm the voices of LGBTQ youth.” 

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