Summer reading wasn’t just for students this year – the Hoboken Board of Education has had its own assignments to catch up on. After trimming kindergarten teacher’s aides due to an ever tightening school budget in June, the board and its new interim superintendent discovered that Hoboken’s district is actually required to have kindergarten aides under New Jersey’s education law code. This past Tuesday, they voted unanimously to bring back aides for all 14 kindergarten classes in Hoboken’s public elementary schools for the upcoming year.
Hoboken’s school district must follow different regulations from most New Jersey school districts. In 1985, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that poor urban school districts were being unconstitutionally shortchanged in funding compared to affluent suburban districts. To help correct this imbalance, the state legislature devoted extra funding to 31 poorer “Abbott districts”—nicknamed after the original court case—including Hoboken.
That designation was phased out in 2008, but former Abbott districts still receive special money for things like universal pre-kindergarten, and must follow corresponding rules and stipulations. One of those rules is that full-time kindergarten classes must have a teacher’s aide and no more than 21 students in each class.
‘Never should have slipped by us’
Outgoing Superintendent Mark Toback had announced the elimination of the aides at the last board meeting of the 2013-2014 school year in June.
The law governing Hoboken might have gone unnoticed if not for a group of concerned Hoboken parents which formed to oppose the kindergarten cuts. According to group organizer Lisia Zheng Hohlfeld, their efforts “made little difference until [they] came across a part of the NJ education code” applying to “at risk” districts.
Hohlfeld said the group consulted with the state Department of Education, which confirmed that Hoboken is still an “at risk” district and subsequently contacted Interim Superintendent Dr. Richard Brockel, who officially replaced outgoing Superintendent Mark Toback two weeks ago.
“This should have never slipped by us.”—Frances Rhodes-Kearns
“It’s this kind of exodus that continues to cripple Hoboken public schools and this whole episode will only further encourage the trend,” said Hohlfeld.
Some board members also expressed disappointment at Hoboken’s flirtation with a legal violation.
“This should have never slipped by us,” said Frances Rhodes-Kearns, one of two members not associated with the Kids First school board majority aligned with Mayor Dawn Zimmer. “We need to be a little bit more cautious with knowing these requirements.”
Search for a permanent super
At a special session of the Board of Education on Aug. 7, the board officially authorized Interim Superintendent Brockel’s contract, pending county approval. Under the contract, Brockel will earn $605 a day, or $157,300 if he works five days a week for a full year. His contract will last until June 30, 2015 or until a permanent superintendent takes over.
Tuesday, Brockel said he was “pleased as punch” to be taking over the reins in Hoboken and that he looked forward to meeting the students.
Brockel has 44 years of prior experience in school administration in New Jersey and New York. He has previously served as a superintendent in Ridgefield, Greenwood Lake, Park Ridge, and Wood-Ridge. He has also served as assistant superintendent in Greenwood Lake and Fort Lee, principal in Springfield and assistant principal in Ridgefield.
Only one board member, Peter Biancamano, voted against Brockel’s contract. Biancamano, who is up for re-election in November, has been critical of the board’s spending in the past, but he said he was not objecting to Brockel’s level of compensation. Rather, Biancamano questioned why the board chose to seek out a newcomer rather than promote from within the administration. In Assistant Superintendent Dr. Miguel Hernandez, Biancamano wrote in an email, the board had a qualified candidate for interim superintendent with “great knowledge of the district.”
This past Tuesday, the board approved a contract with R-Pat Solutions, an educational services consulting group based in Roselle Park, to conduct its search for a new permanent superintendent.
Board member Leon Gold said the board used R-Pat for the superintendent search that led to Toback’s hire and was very happy with their services.
The school district will pay the firm $8,900, plus pre-approved expenses. R-Pat’s bid was one of four received for the contract, two of which were interviewed by the board.
New board president to boot
Also at the meeting, Leon Gold stepped down as Board of Education President. Ruth Tyroler was elected to take his place, with only Biancamano and Rhodes-Kearns voting in opposition. Thomas Kluepfel was elected to fill the vice president seat vacated by Tyroler.
After the vote, Gold said it was simply time for him to step down. In March, Gold became a target of controversy in Hoboken after he was quoted in a Salon.com interview saying that charter schools were “creating separate but equal school systems” in Hoboken.
Tyroler said she was the second most senior member of the board, and that her time as board vice president left her well prepared to fulfill her new presidential duties.
Kluepfel is one of the founders of Hoboken’s Elysian Charter School.
State aid falls further
The financial pressures on Hoboken schools have only increased over the summer holiday. In July, the state informed Hoboken that its school choice aid had been reduced by almost $670,000.
Business Administrator William Moffitt said the funding fell after the state tweaked the formula it uses to calculate school choice aid to consider the actual enrollment numbers for out-of-district students as of October 2013 rather than their projected enrollment for the coming year.
Moffitt said the board must consider in the next few months how to cover this shortfall for the 2015-2016 year.
In the upcoming year, the school board will replace its staff of bus drivers, who specifically serve special needs students, with private operators. In June, Toback said the bus driver cuts would yield an estimated $750,000 in savings.
Carlo Davis may be reached at email@example.com.