Every student has had a teacher who made a huge impact on his or her life. In Hoboken, for many students that teacher is Paula Ohaus. Ohaus has led Hoboken High School’s theater program for over a decade and has led the students to many statewide awards.
But what happens when a popular staff member lets students sleep over her house and ride in her personal vehicle – even with parental permission – in an era in which people are suspicious of close relationships between students and teachers? What happens when she is accused of defying the rules, even with good intentions, and doing so to a point at which the new superintendent of schools has said her actions do not warrant tenure?
Over the past few weeks, that is exactly what has happened in Hoboken.
“She’s done so much good for so many people.” – Greg Ribot
But just a few days after the play was performed, Ohaus announced that she was resigning from the district, citing “ongoing harassment.”
What came to light following the resignation was that school administrators had expressed to her what they believed were liability concerns.
The superintendent presented Ohaus, in a meeting with her and her union representative, with a list of 24 concerns which included having students over her home and driving students in her car.
She was also accused of allowing students who failed classes to participate in plays, allowing students from the charter schools to become involved in the Hoboken High School productions, and concerns about the financing of the plays.
Normally, personnel issues remain private and an employee receives a “Rice notice,” named after the 1977 decision Rice v. Union County Regional High School, which gives employees a right to confidentiality in personnel matters.
But Ohaus decided to take her fight public, waiving her rights in the Rice notice.
“The decision to go public was a very difficult decision,” Ohaus said in an interview last week. “I’m quite a private person, but it kind of had to be done.”
Ohaus resigned briefly after meeting with Superintendent Mark Toback in April. But Ohaus changed her mind, and she rescinded her resignation right before a board meeting attended by many of her students and supporters.
However, the issues resurfaced a few weeks later.
In April, the issue became political. A school board election was going on, and the elections for six of nine City Council seats were to take place in May. Supporters of the “Kids First” faction of board members, who are allied with Mayor Dawn Zimmer, seemed to all share the opinion that Ohaus had flouted the rules, while their opponents rallied for Ohaus.
After Ohaus announced before the April board meeting that she was coming back, the matter seemed to quiet down for a bit.
Then, only a few weeks later, the news came out that Toback said he does not wish to offer Ohaus a tenured position at the end of the year. That meant her contract would not be renewed.
Ohaus would like to keep her position as a teacher and be offered tenure, she said last week.
After a certain number of years, teachers are either offered tenure or their contracts are not renewed, and because of the concerns in the district, Ohaus’ actions do not warrant tenure, according to Toback.
“There have been concerns that have come my way that lead me in a situation where tenure is not warranted,” Toback said in an interview last week. “I offered to work with the union and Mrs. Ohaus to come up with another work arrangement where she can stay in the district doing the plays, but it would not lead to tenure.”
Toback said he attempted “to come up with compromise” by offering Ohaus a position to continue directing plays, but not as a teacher.
Ohaus only began teaching recently, but has directed plays in the district for 14 years.
Carmelo Garcia, a Board of Education member, has been leading the charge to have Ohaus remain.
“I haven’t heard a solid case yet on why we’re not keeping these phenomenal teachers,” Garcia said. Five other employees are slated for non-renewal, including another popular member of the staff, Cheng Yen Hillenbrand, the head of the John Hopkins program.
“There are some issues from a liability standpoint that had some validity,” Garcia said. “But she doesn’t have disciplinary actions against her.”
Ohaus has said that she had parental permission for the sleepovers and car rides.
Parents and students at her home
“Every year after the spring show, all of the cast and some of the parents would attend a celebratory party in my home,” Ohaus said. “The parents and I would barbeque, and the children would celebrate their hard work and the success of the show. It was always a fun, memorable event, and there were never any problems associated with it in 14 years.”
Ohaus added that the board has previously provided a bus for the trip, and she was unaware of a policy forbidding the events.
“No one had, in 14 years, expressed concern or given a different directive,” she said. “Had an administrator done so I would of course have followed their directive.”
Also, every year, a group of students traveled to the two day Thespian Festival at Rutgers University. Because the price of a hotel for the group was expensive, the school bus would drive students to Ohaus’ house for the night after day one, and then bring the students back the next day. Ohaus said parents have given permission.
This year, on Presidents’ Day weekend, the students wanted to continue the tradition of staying over even though they wouldn’t attend the festival, and Ohaus invited students to her home “with all the parents’ written consents and a clearly delineated note stating it was not a school sponsored event.” Ohaus said some parents also came.
Ohaus also took students in her car to colleges for interviews and visits, but she said that often, parents came too, and she was just trying to help students who may not know their way around a college campus and through the sometimes intimidating college application process.
Garcia believes the charges are issues “that have to be corrected,” but noted the parental consent. He said that because of all the good that Ohaus has done for the community, she deserves a second chance.
Board President Rose Marie Markle, who is politically at odds with Garcia on the board, said she believes Garcia made the issue political.
“I understand that students are angry,” Markle said. “They love her, but you don’t fuel the fire.”
Markle said she will support the superintendent’s decision to not hire Ohaus in a tenured position, if the issue comes to the board.
“If that’s his decision I stand by my superintendent,” Markle said. “For a board member to sit there and say we don’t approve – we’re not there to micromanage the superintendent. These are his employees; these are his decisions, and I will stand by him. Don’t tell me rules are made to be broken.”
Markle added that the board does not wish to cut the theater program.
Ohaus believes the claims made against her have been exaggerated.
Parents and students sound off
Many parents interviewed for this story did not wish to be named for fear of retribution against their children, who may be involved in the theater program.
“We all have to follow the rules in place by our bosses,” said a father of a student in the district who is in the program. “They’re all set for good reasons. If you or I don’t agree with an employer’s rules, we try to compromise, but we just don’t ignore it. My boss would turn around and tell me to find another place to work.”
Deirdre Wall, a parent in the district, believes that there is a silent majority of parents who both like Ohaus and her productions, but see a liability concern.
“If you take her name out of the equation, or if you switch her gender, it just becomes a different situation,” Wall said. “If you look at the list of concerns, and sleepovers are part of it, parents might change their minds on what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.”
Ohaus still has the support of many in the community.
Danny Schott is a parent in the district whose youngest son graduated from Hoboken High School last year.
“[Ohaus] has had a big impact on my son’s lives,” Schott said. “Both of them were good students, but Paula really helped in terms of giving them confidence, and being able to talk and perform.”
Schott is a teacher in New York City and said he believes the issue of Ohaus driving students in her car should not be a big concern.
“I teach in New York, and when there was a transit strike, we would pick up kids on the street,” he said. “A number of teachers have done that. Kids go on field trips and sleepovers all the time in school.”
Greg Ribot’s daughter benefited from Ohaus’ involvement in the school system, and said Ohaus’ encouragement helped her get into college.
“The idea that teachers are supposed to be these totally amazing people that are totally inspiring all the time, and they force our little geniuses to do things no one else can do, I don’t go for that,” Ribot said. “But it just so happens that Paula is one of those teachers. It’s unusual, and if you get a teacher like this, you may as well make the best of it. And on top of that, the kids love her – they are inspired by her.”
He continued: “I don’t get it. She’s done so much good for so many people, she’s gone above and beyond for people – the kids go home and it has a positive effect on their families…she helps people in every way possible.”
But to others, it’s about applying the rules universally.
“It’s about the school, students, and protecting the district’s interests,” one mother said. “It’s not necessarily about being popular; you can’t have rules that don’t apply to one person.”
The students have supported Ohaus at recent school board meetings.
“I learned so much because Ms. Ohaus has done and shown us so much,” said Ariel Cruz, a sophomore at Hoboken High School, during a recent meeting. “We don’t know everyone’s individual situation…Ms. Ohaus is there [for us].”
Colleen Kirk, an alumna of the program, was voted the best actress in the state while at Hoboken High School under Ohaus, and also spoke out for her during a recent meeting.
“The only reason I won that award is because of Ms. Ohaus,” Kirk said. “Ms. Ohaus makes art-makers, groundbreakers, and world-changers.”
Up next for Ohaus is a “Donaldson hearing,” where she is able to state her case to keep her job. Ohaus can speak and ask supporters to address the board. She would then need a majority of the board members to vote to keep her.
Ohaus said she doesn’t know what to expect when her Donaldson hearing happens. A date has not yet been set.
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com