The 2013-2014 school year has come to a close, but the fight within Hoboken’s public school community over the expansion of a charter school continues. The Hoboken Dual Language Charter School (HoLa) got state approval in March to expand to seventh and eighth grade, but some school district officials complained that the district’s charter schools are taking money and resources away from the regular public schools. In a move that has divided Hoboken politicians and parents, the “Kids First” school board majority voted last month to appropriate $30,000 more to fight the state’s decision to expand HoLa.
The increase brings the total amount devoted to attorney Eric Harrison of Methfessel & Werbel to $50,000.
Board president Leon Gold said in an interview last week that the boost was necessary to cover any potential cost of legal actions over the summer break, during which the school board does not meet.
Hoboken Public Schools Superintendent Mark Toback, who is leaving this summer to move to a different district, wrote a letter opposing the extension at the time.
“We’re a scapegoat for the difficult decisions they have to make.” – Barbara Martinez
Barbara Martinez, the president of HoLa’s Board of Trustees, said the school board’s recent legal fee increase “reflects their willingness to spend any amount of taxpayer money to hurt another public school that is serving children in Hoboken.”
School hires its own lawyer
Martinez said HoLa had been forced to hire its own lawyer, which has cost the school $8,000 so far.
“It is unfortunate that Hoboken taxpayers have to pay for the legal fees of both the district and our tiny charter school,” she added.
Charter schools are considered public schools, but were founded by parents and educators and must be approved by the state. Hoboken has three charter schools, two of which were founded in the 1990s. HoLa is a newer entity.
The ongoing legal action won’t affect next year’s enrollment at HoLa. The expansion would begin in the 2015-2016 school year.
The school has expanded by one grade level every year since opening for kindergarten through second grade in 2010, and it already had permission to expand to sixth grade thanks to a prior state decision in 2013. The sixth grade will be added this fall.
HoLa currently has 260 students, and would grow to an estimated 400 students with the addition of three additional grades.
The board’s legal petition maintains that HoLa’s charter lottery system causes de facto racial and class segregation, a controversial opinion expressed by some expansion opponents. Toback made it clear last week that the biggest issue regarding HoLa is its effect on the school budget.
“None of this is anything the board wants to be doing,” said Toback, “but we have to do it because of our difficult financial situation.”
On May 6, the school board passed a budget for the 2014-2015 school year totaling $64.9 million. A projected $8.28 million of that sum will go directly to Hoboken’s three charter schools, along with a handful of charter schools in Jersey City that teach Hoboken children.
Charter schools automatically receive $12,000 from the Hoboken public schools operating budget for each Hoboken child they educate. There has been some debate over what the true cost is to the district, as school districts get a certain amount of financial aid per student.
In support of the new budget, Hoboken’s school tax rate will go up 3.9 percent – an increase of $56 per year in taxes for a property assessed at $140,000. In total, the school tax levy will grow by $1.48 million to $39.4 million. This comes on top of a 1.9 percent tax increase in the 2014 Hoboken city budget and a 14.9 percent tax increase for Hoboken in the Hudson County budget, which was struck on June 26.
Toback said the tax increase was necessitated by a variety of budget pressures, of which HoLa’s expansion is only the most publicized. These include a decrease in available surplus, a food service deficit, growing special education and energy costs, and standard increases in salary and benefits for employees.
Where in past years the state might have taken action to make up the difference, Toback has accused the administration of Gov. Chris Christie of stepping away from the public schools. For the coming year, state aid to Hoboken public schools will increase by $45,147 to $10.8 million. By comparison, said Toback, HoLa’s portion of the school budget is expected to grow by $575,776 next year.
Martinez said HoLa’s fixed funding forces it to “operate incredibly efficiently.”
“We focus almost all of our money on instruction,” she said. “Because we have to raise money for facilities, we raise money from our parents.”
She said HoLa uses less than 5 percent of the overall school budget to educate more than 10 percent of the current public school population in Hoboken.
The population of public school students in Hoboken is small compared to nearby districts. The high school graduating class last month was comprised of 104 seniors.
HoLa, Martinez added, is “a scapegoat for the difficult decisions that [the school board members] have to make around their own budget.”
For Gold and Toback, the way charter schools are funded reflects a fundamental difference in their philosophy toward public education. They noted that traditional school systems spend massively up front on buildings, infrastructure, faculty, administrators and like. These overhead costs, they say, mean a higher average cost per student, but a much lower incremental cost for each additional student added to the district. By comparison, each additional student at a charter school is guaranteed to cost an additional $12,000, according to the budget numbers.
The severity of Hoboken’s school budget shortfall was recently brought into focus by a decision to eliminate 13 instructional aides in kindergarten classrooms at Hoboken’s public elementary schools.
Three aides in other areas will also be eliminated. The cuts to kindergarten will save the city around $240,000.
Three mothers of students in next year’s kindergarten classes spoke against the cuts at the June 24 school board meeting, and an online petition calling on the administration to reinstate the aides has received 140 signatures as of press time.
The mothers said they had only learned of the school board’s decision the previous Friday, a week before the end of the school year.
Toback said the decision was one of the hardest choices his administration made in seeking to counteract its budget shortfall.
He maintained that the move would not have an adverse effect on Hoboken kindergarteners. According to Toback, many public schools in New Jersey already forego instructional aides in kindergarten, including some of Hoboken’s charter schools.
Toback expects Hoboken kindergarten classes to have a larger enrollment next year, and said the school board was closely monitoring class sizes. The average class size in kindergarten was 17 students this past year, and has historically never been above 23 students.
Projected kindergarten class sizes at or above 21 students next year would be a clear “cause for concern” for Toback. The board could bring back some aides or an additional kindergarten teacher at the school board’s August meeting.
Megan O’Reilly’s daughter is entering kindergarten in the public schools next year. At the June 24 board meeting, she said even 17 kindergarteners would be too much for one teacher.
“I can’t imagine [my daughter] wandering around the hallway to go to the bathroom by herself, or should she be sick, to not be able to have enough care,” she said.
“Kindergarten and the quality of the program is really a cornerstone of Hoboken’s appeal as ‘a nice place to raise a family,’ ” wrote Lisia Zheng Hohlfeld, another of the parents present at the meeting, in an email to the newspaper. “This dramatic cut in teaching staff will severely undermine what the school district has done all these years to build the program and establish its reputation.”
A group of parents including Hohlfeld met with Toback on June 26 to discuss the issue. According to Hohlfeld, Toback assured the parents that “things will not be ‘as bad as they look now’” come September, and scheduled an additional meeting in two weeks after conversations with other members of the administration.
While Hohlfeld doubted that all of the aides could be brought back, she expressed a hope that shared aides or floater aides could be installed as the next best option.
Meanwhile, the board must find a new superintendent. Toback is expected to take over as the new superintendent of Wayne’s public school district on Aug. 11, according to NorthJersey.com. At the June 24 school board meeting, Toback said the board has already begun the search for an interim superintendent who can provide “short-term stability” to the district. He added that it could take several months to find a full-time replacement. Job advertisements for an interim and full-time superintendent have been posted on the Hoboken Board of Education website.