Tuesday’s Hoboken Board of Education meeting, the last one before an election for three board seats on Nov. 6, began with a presentation on bullying – and ironically five hours later was driven by personal attacks.
Tempers flared at the meeting over controversies focused on Councilman Michael Russo and the reinstatement of track coach Judy Burrell.
The Board of Education is politically divided 5 to 4, and the outcome of the November election could potentially change that. Five members of the Kids First majority are allied with Mayor Dawn Zimmer, and the remaining four members, against.
The only part of the meeting that didn’t seem to involve politics was an hour devoted to progress report comparisons by year. Data sheets were available at the beginning of the meeting that indicated district performance on many levels, and Superintendent of Schools Dr. Mark Toback also gave a Power Point presentation on how to improve student performance. Toback received compliments from parents who said they appreciated his administration’s transparency.
Russo…on field or off?
Councilman Michael Russo, who works as a professional physical therapist, has spent 12 years volunteering his rehabilitation services to the high school football team. However, Russo was recently pulled off the field mid-game and informed that he could not volunteer until he met certain protocols, he said. After fulfilling the district’s requests, including fingerprinting, Russo’s name was the only one missing on Tuesday’s agenda for volunteer approvals.
Russo is politically opposed to Mayor Dawn Zimmer and to the Kids First school board majority.
“There is more to the story,” Toback said at the meeting, in response to Russo’s questions, “and I would rather discuss it with [Russo].”
The issue resurfaced later, along with heated debate.
Toback later said that district policy for volunteering requires a recommendation that Russo lacked. He also said that his volunteering involved a fixed term of appointment.
Some attendees at the meeting defended Russo.
“I have helped your son and daughter on the sidelines,” Russo said to Board President Rose Markle, “and it was okay then, but not now, because there is an election coming.”
Additionally, for close to 20 years at Halloween, Russo’s family’s civic association has presented a Hoboken Haunted House in various locations. It has attracted as many as 3,000 kids. Last year, the Demarest School gym was utilized as the venue. This year however, Russo was told the school could not accommodate the event.
Toback said that the Demarest gym was not a feasible option for the event this year. “Demarest school was, in large parts, empty [before],” said Toback. “That is no longer the case. If the weather is bad, we bring 3- and 4-year-olds into that gym, and it would be an unusual thing to bring 3- and 4-year-olds into a haunted house.”
The board and the public discussed other venue options, including trailers, but none seemed to suffice in terms of space.
“If it is nothing versus the trailers, I’d rather try the trailers,” said board member Maureen Sullivan.
Patricia Waiters, independent candidate in the coming board election, said she was “heartbroken” by the news of the canceled long-time Hoboken tradition.
“I cannot afford to pay $45 and take my kids to Great Adventure or some other haunted house,” said Waiters. “They go to [Hoboken] haunted house, and it breaks my heart. All of our kids are going to suffer. I cannot even speak just because of [Russo]. This man is trying to volunteer his free time. This doesn’t show integrity. It’s the same old game.”
Russo was told throughout the discussion of both issues that the decisions reached were not politically motivated. However, when he was able to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting, he asked the board, “Does it look political now?”
Still on track
A resolution to reinstate Judy Burrell, formerly the coach for indoor and outdoor track, was on the agenda to be approved at the meeting.
The board had declined to reinstate Burrell to the long-time position earlier this summer after discussion in closed session. However, the board and Superintendent Toback never publicly revealed the reasons.
Burrell is allied with the Kids First board majority and is an appointee on the Hoboken Housing Authority, allied with Zimmer.
Tuesday night, Burrell reinstatement and other matters required a lengthy closed session mid-meeting. Originally not to exceed 45 minutes, it lasted almost two hours and the audience became impatient.
The discussion behind closed doors later was reportedly about whether to vote now or table the Burrell issue and repost the coaching job for additional candidacy. The long hiatus invited a lot of rumors.
Parents whispered about why Burrell’s contract had not been reinstated back in June, and some said that her potential reinstatement had to do with her friendship with Kids First member Rose Markle.
After the break, teenager Dayanara Morales gave a tearful speech to the board about Burrell and the sport of track.
“I don’t think it’s fair to pull the plug on track just because some of you don’t like Ms. Burrell,” Morales said. Morales was on the track and field team when she attended Hoboken High School.
However, she was told that the program would not be eliminated.
“No one is interested in eliminating track; it’s that simple,” Toback said.
When it came time to vote, a fight broke out among board members.
The Kids First majority voted to reinstate Burrell. This provoked outrage from minority faction board member Carmelo Garcia.
Garcia charged that in closed session, member Ruth McAllister agreed with the minority and said she would vote to table the position until it was re-posted for other candidates. However, according to Garcia, McAllister changed her mind by the time the board members returned downstairs.
“That was the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen,” said minority board faction member Maureen Sullivan, in response to the vote.
“I am entitled to change my mind,” McAllister said.
“Talk about the political pressures that still come down,” Sullivan said.
Garcia said that McAllister only changed her mind because of anger from Markle.
On Thursday, McAllister told the newspaper, "Closed session discussions by law and fairness are private. I can't even ethically confirm or deny if a particular employee was talked about. I know that, Carmelo knows that, and unlike him I treat that duty seriously.”
She added, “I can ethically say is I never said that I would vote to override the recommendation of the superintendent on this matter. In fact, I never even considered it.”
Ohaus issue rears its head
The board minority faction also made reference to a controversy from a year ago in which a popular longtime drama teacher at Hoboken High School, whose program had won numerous awards for the students, was denied tenure, a move Kids First supported. They had argued in the past that Paula Ohaus had not followed district rules, for instance, by having a sleepover at her house for students. Supporters had said that Ohaus got permission from parents and that some parents attended events at her house as well.
Tuesday night, minority faction board member Frances Rhodes-Kearns chimed in about the track issue with a veiled reference to Ohaus. “Just because a teenage girl got up?” she said. “It’s amazing that nobody listened to teenagers about the performing arts teachers.”
She received a round of applause.
On the vote to reinstate Burrell, Sullivan, Rhodes-Kearns, and members Carmelo Garcia and Peter Biancamano voted “no”.
“I feel like I was set up,” Garcia said.
“This was another political stunt by the board majority,” said Biancamano.
Along with half a dozen handouts, Toback offered a Power Point presentation of district progress and the action plans in place to do better. The reports compared proficiency levels of the district schools over the past three years.
“Yes, I blame you.” – Teresa Minutillo
Not all board members agreed on the progress being made.
“We are not getting it right,” said Sullivan. “Look at the [proficiency levels of] seventh graders at Connors. When I ran [for the board] I thought we could do better. It’s the same old, same old. It’s more important to take care of your friends, than take care of the kids.”
“You pulled your kids out; mine are still here,” shot back board member Theresa Minutillo.
“Do you blame me?” said Sullivan.
“Yes, I blame you,” said Minutillo.
Some parents were pleased with the level of transparency in the reports and requested they be put online.
“The scores are still quite upsetting,” said Move Forward election candidate Liz Markevich, who is allied with the board minority. “Thank you for your strategy reports. I wish Dr. Toback was present several years ago so we would be further down the line in implementing them.”
“Excellent job,” said parent Jason Yoon-Hendricks. “I love the transparency.”
Hendricks later spoke about shared resources for out of town students, a hot-button issue in the school board election. Members of the Kids First slate believe the extra-curricular programs should be limited to students within the public schools in the district. Members of the competing Move Forward slate have said that all students in all schools, including charter and Catholic, should be able to participate, although parochial and private schools should have to pay a fee.
Charter schools are largely publicly funded and are free, although they must raise some money on their own.
“It is not practical to think that opening up [these programs] would have no impact,” said Hendricks. “Either room will be limited to district students to provide space for out of district students and the costs for programs will expand, or the costs will be passed on to families. Nothing comes for free, least of which in Hoboken.”
Lights, camera, action
Hendricks watched as his son, Jaemison Yoon-Hendricks, was awarded the overall Student of the Month Award at Hoboken High School. Jaemison Hendricks aspires to work in media production – “Maybe a director” – and videotapes the monthly board meetings as part of a TV production program at school.
Hendricks left the meeting at 11 p.m. since he is still a minor, which left only one camera taping the meeting from behind the speakers.
The absence of a front camera angered Move Forward campaign manager Joseph Branco because Markevich, his candidate, could not be taped when she spoke.
“She is a candidate in this election,” Branco said. “This is the last meeting before an election. This is unacceptable.”
Amanda Palasciano may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.