As if there’s not enough to vote for in Hoboken this November – president, three important Hoboken referendum questions, and a congressional seat – three seats are open on the nine-member Board of Education.
The school district is run with a $63 million budget and has a little more than 2,100 children enrolled.
The school board election will be held in November for the first time, a change that was approved by a vote of the board last February. In the past, elections were held each April, but turnout was low.
This election has implications for kids, taxpayers, and of course, local politics. Right now, the majority of the school board seats are held by Kids First, a faction allied with Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who is up for re-election next year herself. In the past, the school board election results were looked upon as a way to determine the strength of the reigning mayor, and his or her likelihood of re-election.
Residents of Hoboken pay taxes to three entities – the town, the schools, and the county, all figured into one total on the quarterly tax bills.
The district includes five public schools: Hoboken High School, Joseph F. Brandt School, Salvatore R. Calabro School, Thomas G. Connors School, and Wallace School. There are also three charter schools in Hoboken, which charge no tuition and are considered public schools.
Some of the bigger issues this year include whether the district should add more charter schools, how to improve test scores, personnel changes, and whether public school recreational facilities should be open to all children in the community, regardless of school.
“I’m not going to sugar coat it; there are serious problems in our schools.” – Elizabeth Markevitch
However, there have been some strides in the elementary schools. Calabro School saw higher percentages than the state in both proficient and advanced levels in mathematics and science testing in 2010-2011.
Kids First, Move Forward, and an independent
Seven candidates are running for the three open seats. Voters can vote for any three; they don’t have to stick with a slate.
There are two slates running – Kids First (allied with Mayor Dawn Zimmer) and Move Forward, along with independent Patricia Waiters, who has run for the board before.
Kids First consists of existing board member Ruth McAllister, former board member Jean Marie Mitchell (who filled a board seat in 2010 but lost her election bid in 2011) and first-time candidate and founder of Elysian Charter School Tom Kluepfel. All three have children in the public schools.
The Move Forward slate consists of Elizabeth Markevitch, attorney Felice Vazquez, and Anthony Oland. Markevitch and Oland have children in the public schools (Oland’s child is in a charter school), while Vazquez has no children.
Waiters is a parent and an avid Board of Education meeting attendee.
And then there were seven
Kids First’s original ticket was to include existing board member Theresa Minutillo, who has been on the board since 2006. She announced her decision not to seek re-election in August.
Kluepfel, who had intended to run independently, then joined Kids First. He has never run for office in Hoboken before. He helped found the Elysian Charter School in Hoboken in the mid-1990s. After the founding of Elysian, Kluepfel said he had to take a step back to focus on business and family. He said that people have approached him to run for the school board over the years.
As with many issues in Hoboken, clear sides have been drawn over a few issues that one might think would not be so cut and dried.
For instance, the Kids First slate believes that adding more charter schools to the district would sap resources from the other public schools. Charter schools are considered public schools and are largely funded with public money, but can raise some private funding. A state law passed in the mid-1990s allows educators and parents to found these schools, subject for approval of their charter by the state.
Last week, the state rejected a proposed new charter school for Hoboken, the DaVinci Charter School, a science-oriented school. The Board of Education, along with Superintendent Mark Toback, opposed the application for the DaVinci Charter School last May.
Kluepfel offers a unique perspective on charter schools, since he founded one but is running on a slate that opposes more.
“The state funding formula sort of sets up district and charter schools to have an adversarial relationship,” Kluepfel said. He shares his running mates’ opinion that additional charter schools would force the district to cut programs.
Mitchell said, “We need to support the children in the district.”
Move Forward, on the other hand, believes there is a place for more charter schools.
“The best part about any charter,” said Felice Vasquez, “is the new energy being brought to it by interested, excited and engaged parents. Politics and egos force [charter schools] not to be included as part of the curriculum. My fear is that our opponents are making the same mistake with the DaVinci Charter School.”
Supporters of charter schools say they will provide parents with more educational choices in Hoboken, and help keep parents from putting their children in private schools or leaving town.
There is also debate over whether charter school kids can participate in athletics and school programs (like plays) in the other public schools. Kids First does not believe they should participate. Move Forward would like to implement a case by case fee allowing all Hoboken kids to take part in all extra-curricular activities.
Kids First member McAllister said, “The purpose of the Hoboken Board of Education is to provide educational programming to children that attend the schools in our district. It is unlawful for us to use HBOE dollars to finance programs that are not related to that goal.”
But Move Forward believes public school facilities and programs should be available for all local schools.
“A lot of these extra curricular programs,” said co-campaign manager John Castellano, “would benefit from having more kids.”
Kids First supports the recent changes made while they have held the board majority. This includes the hiring of Superintendent Dr. Mark Toback, who took over the reins in January of 2011.
Jean Marie Mitchell, who previously sat on the board from 2010-2011, has not missed a Board of Education meeting in six years. She emphasized that she would like to “maintain the progress that the majority has made.”
Ruth McAllister, the only incumbent in the race, agreed.
“We believe in the leadership that was in place over the past three years,” said McAllister. “We believe that Dr. Toback is doing an excellent job. The opposing ticket, Move Forward, is looking to bring in new school leadership.”
Move Forward contested this statement. “We said new leadership in our literature,” said Castellano. “We were talking about the board, not administration. It is just a rumor that [Move Forward] seeks to get rid of anyone.”
Kluepfel has spent a lot of time working with Toback as a volunteer. He believes the district needs to do more testing to figure out which kids are not doing well, and in which categories, so they can improve.
“Schools need that information,” said Kluepfel. “We need to get these kids up the literacy ladder.”
Mitchell said Monday that her opponent (Move Forward) has been bashing the district.
“[Move Forward] is tearing down the district,” said Mitchell, “but I haven’t heard any ideas from them.”
Kluepfel feels the board meetings themselves need change.
“I’d like to see a return to civility at the board meetings,” Kluepfel said Monday. “[Board meetings] are not Town Hall meetings. Business needs to get conducted. Dialogue needs to go back to intelligent.”
Mitchell and Kluepfel each have a child in Hoboken High School and McAllister has a child in fifth grade at Wallace School.
The Move Forward ticket does not feel that much progress has been made in the schools in recent years. They say that many issues need attention.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Markevitch said. “There are serious problems in our schools.”
Markevitch has a daughter in 11th grade at Hoboken High who formerly went to Elysian Charter.
“Let the charter students join the Redwings band and/or theater,” said Markevitch, “and show that we can do right for all the students because all taxpayers pay for all schools.”
Move Forward also feels strongly about the instability among the school staff in recent years and the impact it has on children.
“Hiring or naming four superintendents in three years,” Vasquez said, “or four principals at the high school in three years, is not the consistency that positive change is built on, and that is shown in the [NJ Monthly] rankings.”
In a recent list in New Jersey Monthly Magazine, Hoboken High School dropped to the bottom 50 high schools in their list.
Move Forward believes that the children and parents deserve more.
“The students don’t care about board politics,” Markevitch said. “They care about superb teachers who wake them up and shake them and change their lives.”
People behind the slates
Kids First supporters have expressed concerns about the politicians backing Move Forward, saying some of those behind the scenes were members of past boards when auditors found problems in the district.
“As with all elected officials, I consider who funds their campaign indicative of the integrity of the candidates,” McAllister said. “Frank Raia, the main backer and treasurer of Move Forward, was president of the [board] when it was common practice to spend [Board of Education] dollars on many non-educational activities such as $1,200 dinner tabs at expensive steak restaurants, trips, and so many other contracts that auditors said added no value to the education of our children.”
Castellano responded, “This is just a distraction and has nothing to do with my candidates; it has to do with their supporters.”
He said, “I’m not surprised they’d make this an issue rather than education. I can’t speak on Frank Raia’s service on the board, but as a treasurer he is doing everything by the books. All reports are being filed and filled out accurately.”
Patricia Waiters, who often makes her opinion known at board and council meetings alike, has run in the past three elections.
“I just want to leave the politics out of it!” Waiters said last week.
Waiters admits that she does not have the funding for a campaign, but says she will not stop fighting.
Waiters also mentioned a dislike of Kids First, saying the ticket is “only in it for the power.”
Amanda Palasciano may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.