A Board of Education candidates’ forum held Thursday at the Demarest School included all seven candidates in the Nov. 6 election, including an independent and one incumbent. The debate, co-sponsored by Hoboken Family Alliance and Hoboken Quality of Life Coalition, enabled the candidates to answer audience-posed questions.
Three seats of the nine member board are open, which could alter the balance of power on a board politically split in a 5 to 4 majority to minority divide.
The majority is currently held by members of Kids First, a ticket supported by Mayor Dawn Zimmer. With three upcoming vacancies, a potential shift in the majority is at stake and at times the campaigning has been rough and tumble. But Thursday’s forum focused on educational issues in a campaign which has gotten more attention for guilt-by-association charges between the two major slates.
Two tickets are competing in the race along with one independent, Patricia Waiters. Kids First, the current board majority, is backing incumbent Ruth McAllister, Jean Marie Mitchell (who sat on the board from 2010-2011), and Tom Kluepfel, a founder of Elysian Charter School. The opposing slate, Move Forward, is comprised of longtime activist Elizabeth Markevitch, Anthony Oland and attorney Felice Vasquez.
“We’ll watch the circus again at the board meetings with the majority versus the minority” – Pat Waiters
Hot button issues in the debate included progress of the district and its current administration, parental involvement, budgetary spending, legal fees, and sharing resources among all Hoboken students, public or charter.
While overt charges were traded by the candidates, alongside references to past performance, only one point seemed to rouse the audience: A comment by a Kids First candidate claiming test score reporting in the past had been “cheated.”
Current administration debated
Kids First and Move Forward have adversarial views on the current administration and the progress the school district is or is not making.
Move Forward claimed there was instability in the administration and a lack of district progress. But they also emphasized that, contrary to rumor, they have no plan to get rid of Superintendent Dr. Mark Toback.
“No one on my team has any plans to get rid of Dr. Toback,” said Vasquez.
Kids First believes that they have made strides with the help of Superintendent Toback.
“A lot of progress has been made,” said incumbent Ruth McAllister. “We had a lot of cleaning up to do. There were 29 audits and we have even won an award for cleaning up the business office.”
But the Move Forward candidates cited recent reports in “Money Magazine” comparing top earning towns and low district rankings along with an article in “The Wall Street Journal” naming Hoboken one of the “least attractive districts” that have created a stir among parents.
“For the first time in history, Hoboken is a district in need of improvement,” said Vasquez. “Statistics tell the story.”
McAllister rebutted by saying that in the past, district testing was not being administered correctly. “[In the past] those were cheated test scores. And we got an award for that cheating. It is an embarrassment that the administration did that.”
This accusation clearly upset people in the audience, along with some teachers.
“This is the first time we are hearing about cheating test scores,” said Markevitch.
On Friday, McAllister pointed to an article written by a Hoboken resident on a local website that demonstrates “how the testing population was manipulated in the high school over many years.”
Budgets and fees
The school district is currently run with a $63 million budget and has a little more than 2,100 children enrolled. Some candidates feel the high dollar amount is not producing the results it should.
“Kids First voted ‘no’ on a $59 million dollar budget in 2009,” said Markevitch. “In 2012 there is a $63 million dollar budget. With over 23K per student, I’d have to say we are probably spending too much money.”
Kids First members replied that the budget is lower than it has been in the past.
“To say the budget is lower than it has been is just a distraction,” said Oland. “We are not delivering results with the money spent.”
Kluepfel said the budget cannot be reduced much further. “We need to find the inefficiencies, and that is what is starting to happen in the last three years,” he said.
“Sixty-two million is high,” said McAllister. “We have reduced a number of people and [now] have extra money. What do we do with the money? Sixty percent of textbooks have been replaced [for one]. It has been endless, the investment that has been put into the classrooms.”
The candidates were split again on whether money on legal fees was being justly spent.
“We have an advantage now of competent counsel,” said Mitchell. “In the past, we were giving away the store.”
“This district is spending twice the state average in legal fees, on frivolous law suits,” said Vasquez.
“This is the board who sued the state of New Jersey over Mark Toback’s salary,” Markevitch added, “instead of putting the money in a bonus structure. And they lost.”
“The lawsuit over Dr. Toback’s salary was not over money, we wanted a decision rendered,” rebutted McAllister.
Patricia Waiters simply felt that a cap should be put on legal fees, as proposed by board member Peter Biancamano.
Members of the Kids First ticket said that many things have been implemented in the last three years to increase parental involvement.
“We have put Genesis in place and are working on a parent portal,” said McAllister. “There used to be no parent-teacher conferences and now there are conferences. There is also a newsletter for parents. This has all happened under Dr. Toback and under Kids First.”
Waiters said that more compassion needs to be shown to parents, so they do not feel their ideas are rejected.
Members of the Move Forward slate echoed that.
“Parents are shunned by the board majority [allied] president,” said Oland, “if she doesn’t like what they have to say.”
“There are incredible parents in this town,” Vasquez said. “They have services to offer and great ideas. And then comes the ‘but.’ [Parents] say ‘But when I go to the board meetings, no one listens to me.’”
Mitchell shot back, “I have been attending board meetings for the past six years and I’m sorry Ms. Vasquez, I’ve never seen you.”
“Some of these meetings go to midnight or 1 a.m.,” Kluepfel said. “A lot of parents get to talk.”
All students, all schools
The school 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 publicly funded.
Kids First feels that the resources of the public schools should be used by the public schools only. Move Forward supports the involvement of all Hoboken students, regardless of the school, in extra-curricular activities, like band and theater.
“There is a need for more children in these programs,” said Markevitch.
“We are one community, and everyone in this community pays for these resources,” added Vasquez.
“High school programming is for high school students,” said McAllister. “There is only one high school and charter schools don’t [only] have Hoboken children.”
“Parents make a choice on what district to send their child to,” Mitchell said. “There will be a cost associated with [sharing resources].”
Waiters said she had a mixed opinion. Waiters’ children were formerly in a charter school, but moved to public.
“I thought it was unfair that my daughter couldn’t join the theater,” Waiters said. “In charter schools, kids are from Jersey City, Newark. I am not saying I am not in favor of this, but only if there is room.”
“[The current policy] seems to alienate parents of charter school children,” said Oland, the parent of a charter school student. “I think we should look at the available resources and do what is in the best interest of the children.”
During closing statements, candidates were asked if they are going to be able to work well with the rest of the board, despite differences in opinion. All of the candidates felt that they could rise above their differences.
Waiters however, felt that a lot of the answers from her competition were “lip service.”
“It’s nice to hear you are all going to work together now,” Waiters said. “But then we’ll watch the circus again at the board meetings with the majority versus the minority.”
Waiters also posed her own question to Vasquez. “Since you are the new kid on the block, are you going to stay involved, win or lose?” Waiters asked.
“Absolutely,” said Vasquez.
Amanda Palasciano may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.