Over the next two weeks, the Hoboken Reporter will be individually profiling all three slates running for the Hoboken Board of Education in the upcoming general election on Tuesday, Nov. 4. The following initial installment takes a look at the Parents for Progress slate.
If you aren’t a Parent Teacher Organization member at Wallace Elementary School or a close observer of the ongoing debate over Hoboken’s charter schools, you could be forgiven for asking who is on the Parents for Progress slate running for the Hoboken Board of Education this year.
Though Parents for Progress candidate Monica Stromwall is one of three incumbents, having been appointed to the school board in January, she is arguably less well known than perennial challengers like Patricia Waiters. As for Stromwall’s running mates Sharyn Angley and Antonio Gray, the 2014 election is their first foray into the public arena.
After not appearing at a candidates’ forum organized by the Hoboken Quality of Life Coalition two weeks ago – Stromwall says they had scheduling conflicts and were not given enough advance notice – Parents for Progress may also be the most mysterious slate.
In fact, in an election where Kids First, the slate that controls the board and has won every seat in the past two elections, fielded no contenders, Parents for Progress may be the closest option to staying the course in Hoboken public schools. At the same time, they have their own ideas for how to improve the district and say they are committed in their rejection of the rancor that defines Hoboken electoral politics.
Stromwall bristles at the suggestion that she is a Kids First sleeper agent, and it’s not hard to see why. She and her running mates are all relatively new to Hoboken and its unique brand of politics.
Stromwall moved to the city in the summer of 2010. The trio first met not at City Hall or the Board of Education but at Wallace Elementary School, where their children are in second grade together. Before Stromwall was appointed to the school board on Jan. 28, the highest school-related positions any of them held in Hoboken were leadership roles in the Wallace Parent Teacher Organization.
At the same time, it’s safe to say that Parents for Progress now enjoy the implicit support of the Kids First coalition, and that the two slates share significant common ground when it comes to policy.
“I’m not a politician, and I feel like Kids First and all the other slates are backed by politicians.” – Monica Stromwall
Though he stopped short of officially endorsing them, former board president and Kids First veteran Leon Gold said he thought Parents for Progress were the three best candidates in this year’s election.
More importantly, Stromwall has voted with the Kids First majority on all of the most debated recent issues, including the lawsuit challenging the expansion of the Hoboken Dual Language Charter School (HoLa), the 2014-15 school budget, and the appointment of Dr. Richard Brockel as interim superintendent.
As the campaign season has ramped up, the Parents for Progress slate has taken on the role filled by Kids First in recent elections, defending the school board and touting the school district’s successes. The other two slates have been roundly critical of the school board’s current leadership.
Backing up the board
One issue that drew particularly strong criticism at last week’s Candidates’ Forum was the school board’s management of the budget. Stromwall said that the board was deeply constrained by its status as a former Abbott district, which requires that a number of services automatically be provided.
“There’s not really anything that can be cut anymore without being in violation of the Department of Education,” she said, noting for example that the district was forced to reinstate the kindergarten aides it had cut.
According to Stromwall, state-mandated expenditures include $10 million for universal pre-kindergarten, almost $10 million going directly to charter schools, and additional money for an above average-sized special education program. As such, she called it disingenuous to use the current budget total, $65 million, to calculate per student costs.
In light of these budget realities, Parents for Progress are not dogmatically opposed to tax increases in the same way as competing slates.
“I’m a taxpayer,” said Angley. “I have two kids enrolled in the schools. I don’t want anyone’s taxes to go up but…I want the schools to be the best that they can be.”
One place Parents for Progress diverges from Kids First is their openness to returning to a system of holding a city-wide vote on the school budget every year. Angley said that was the system in places she had lived previously and expressed hope that it would increase public interest in the budget.
Kids First was in control of the school board that ended the practice of yearly votes in 2012, changing to a system in which a city-wide referendum is only triggered if the budget grows by more than two percent.
With respect to resisting the HoLa expansion, Stromwall said she wished there could have been a better dialogue between the district and its charter schools, but stood by her vote. “I have an obligation to the district’s students and tax payers,” she said.
The real solution to the charter school issue, said Stromwall, is for the state to fund charter schools directly rather than taking money from Hoboken’s school budget for each child a charter school educates.
However, Parents for Progress opposes opening additional charter schools in Hoboken. “We have more charters here than most people have in suburban areas,” said Stromwall, explaining that each additional charter duplicates administrative and facility costs. The district has three charter schools, and some Hoboken students attend charters in Jersey City.
Parents for Progress see publicizing Hoboken public schools’ successes as part of their mission. Their campaign literature is largely given over to an inventory of positive steps the district has taken, including the Johns Hopkins University gifted and talented program, the introduction of the Singapore Math curriculum in elementary school, and the number of Advanced Placement classes in the high school.
Stromwall noted positive gains in a number of categories on state standardized tests last year, including 92 percent of 11th graders at Hoboken High School scoring proficient or above in English language arts. She said it was “huge to be at 92 percent proficiency in an urban area with the students that we’re servicing.”
The Parents for Progress candidates have positioned themselves as the voice for those parents who are happy with the school’s progress and want to see further incremental improvements along the same line.
“We do feel people are more invested in wanting to stay,” said Stromwall. That trend is reflected in the district’s most recent enrollment numbers, which saw the concentration of students receiving free and reduced price lunch fall from 71 percent to 49 percent in a year. That brings the public school population much more in line with the city’s socio-economic reality, which is largely middle class and above.
Stromwall has her own ideas for new initiatives that could further improve the schools. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, she served on a research team that developed “small learning communities” in Wisconsin public high schools that allowed students to earn college credits. She believes strongly that Hoboken could do the same with local institutions like Stevens Institute of Technology.
In focusing on the positive, Parents for Progress say they have no interest in the political posturing that has defined both sides in recent school board elections.
“I’m not a politician,” said Stromwall, “and I feel like Kids First and all the other slates are backed by politicians.”
Parents for Progress does not have the backing of Kids First’s most powerful ally, Mayor Dawn Zimmer. After appearing at Kids First campaign events before last year’s election, itself an atypical move for a school board race, Zimmer is staying well out of the campaign this year.
Ultimately, Parents for Progress base their campaign on the seven children they have in traditional public schools, who led them to meet, become active in their schools, and ultimately run for school board.
“We don’t have any ulterior motives,” said Angley. “I’m not running for City Council after this. It’s for the kids.”