When the administration of interim Hoboken Schools Superintendent Dr. Richard Brockel presented its final budget for the 2015-2016 school year two weeks ago, it only needed to convince a majority of the nine members of the Hoboken Board of Education to vote in favor. For the 2016-17 school year budget, however, the voters may get to decide during a presidential election year.
In Hoboken, if a proposed budget exceeds a certain increase, the tax portion goes to the voters. School officials warned at the Tuesday, May 12 school board meeting that this could happen next year.
Trustee Leon Gold predicted that the next Hoboken school budget would be the first since 2011 to require a public vote. The school budget only goes on the ballot if its property tax levy increase is more than 2 percent, under a legal change approved in 2012.
“There is no way,” warned Gold, “with the expenses that we have, that we’re going to be able to function within a 2 percent cap.”
Chief among those expenses are increased salaries and benefits for district teachers and support staff after a new union deal, and rising payments to Hoboken’s three public charter schools.
At the same time, state aid has been consistently stagnant, forcing local property taxes to make up any budget shortfall.
The same financial pressures forced the district to raise its tax levy by 4 percent, or $1.58 million, to fund its $67.62 million budget for the upcoming school year. The budget was approved by the school board on May 5 by a vote of 8 to 1.
The district was able to exceed a 2 percent increase without triggering a referendum because it passed tax levies below the 2 percent cap in recent years. This year, it cashed in all $695,568 in the “banked cap” space it had accrued.
Here comes the pain
With that latitude now lost, Gold said the only way to avoid “draconian” cuts to district programs next year will be to ask the public to approve a tax levy increase in excess of 2 percent.
In fact, noted Hoboken school board attorney Vito Gagliardi, there is no way to avoid the cuts at least temporarily going into effect, regardless of whether the school tax increase is eventually approved.
Because the public vote on the tax levy increase takes place in November 2016, two months after the 2016-17 school year has begun, the school board must pass a bare-bones budget the previous May without the extra money.
“I’m not afraid to advocate for my students, my school, my district, or my Board of Education.” – Christopher Munoz
“The barebones budget…is not a scare tactic,” said Gagliardi. “It’s your budget, period. The only way additional monies are spent is if the public authorizes them.”
Gagliardi said staff members could potentially be laid off if they are employed within a specific program that is cut in the slender budget.
Whatever potential cuts are made, they will not directly affect Hoboken’s three charter schools. The district is legally required to pay charters a sum set by state formula (typically around $11,000) for each Hoboken child attending their programs.
Blast from the past
Automatic public referendums on the school budget, once an annual tradition in Hoboken, ended when the school board voted in February 2012 to move its elections from April to November.
The intent was to save money by consolidating election cycles and increase voter turnout. In 2011, only 2,147 people voted on the Hoboken school budget.
Some members of the school board believe a chance for the public to vote on the school budget once again is long overdue. Trustee Peter Biancamano sometimes bills himself as a taxpayer’s advocate, and he has voted against every school budget since 2013 because they raised taxes without a public vote.
“My gripe the past three years has been that [the school board majority] is raising taxes without letting the people decide on what to do with their money,” said Biancamano.
On Tuesday, Biancamano emphasized that the state law says that referenda on tax increases below the 2 percent cap “shall not be required,” but does not explicitly prohibit them.
However, Gagliardi, the board attorney, said he was unsure what legal purpose such a vote would serve, since the school board in such a scenario would already be legally authorized to spend all of the money in its budget.
“I suppose you could have a vote on it, but I don’t know what the effect of that vote would be,” he said. “If it’s less than 2 percent and the public votes against it, I don’t know what the next step is.”
Gagliardi could not think of any school board with November elections that had voted on a tax increase of less than 2 percent since 2011. According to him, around 580 of the 600 school districts in New Jersey have switched their elections to November.
QSAC scores rebound
Not all was doom and gloom at this past Tuesday’s school board meeting. Superintendent Brockel announced that the district’s score for instruction and program on the state Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC) was 75 percent for the 2014-15 school year, up from 45 percent last year (80 percent is considered a passing grade).
QSAC is New Jersey’s comprehensive monitoring and evaluation system for public school districts. While Hoboken performed well in four of the five QSAC categories last year, achieving scores above 90 percent, its instruction and program rating lagged due to an over-reliance on textbooks in classroom instruction and a lack of preparation for site visits by state monitors, according to Brockel.
The jump in scores was the result of Hoboken’s implementation of a District Improvement Plan, as required by the state after receiving the failing score last year. Brockel recognized administrators Charles Bartlett, Donna Interdonato, and Jennifer D’Acunto for their work on making the changes wanted by the state.
“Now we do have pacing guides, we do have electronic curriculum, and we do have curriculum that’s printed out in each school,” said Brockel. “The teachers are following curriculum guides rather than the textbooks.”
“If our test scores were better, then we’d be at 80 [percent] or above,” said Brockel, “but they weren’t, so we got awarded the 30 points for all of the preparation that needs to be done.”
2015 was the first full year for the PARCC, a new state-wide standardized test based on the Common Core curriculum, and Brockel is hopeful that scores improve under the new system.
School board raises over $8,000 for legal fight
The Hoboken school board has raised $8,150 in private donations from 14 individuals so far to fund its effort to block the expansion of the Hoboken Dual Language Charter School (HoLa), according to the agenda for its Tuesday meeting.
Board members believe the charter schools – which are public schools – are commanding too much of the district’s money.
In late March, the New Jersey Department of Education upheld its approval of HoLa’s expansion to seventh and eighth grade. At its next meeting on April 14, the Hoboken school board voted to appeal the state’s decision in appellate court but not to spend any additional taxpayer money, instead relying on private donations.
Hoboken’s interim superintendent and a majority of its school board have argued that the state failed to enforce its own laws in approving HoLa’s expansion because it ignored alleged racial and socioeconomic segregation created by the school. The state education commissioner and HoLa representatives have denied that the charter has a segregative effect.
The board is required in its by-laws to approve any gifts to the district over $100 in value, and as a result, the donors are listed in the public agenda.
The donations so far range in value from $100 to $5,000. Among those donating are four of the six school board trustees who voted for the appeal: Jennifer Evans, Jean Marie Mitchell, Irene Sobolov, and Leon Gold.
Other contributors include Hoboken High School teacher Christopher Munoz, Deirdre Wall and Gregory Bond, Carla Weinpahl and Daniel Weaver, and Alice and James Kocis.
Additional donations are almost certain to arrive. A fifth board member, Tom Kluepfel, has said publically that he plans to donate.
And on Tuesday, Hoboken Education Association president Gary Enrico said he had sent a letter to district teachers soliciting donations for the school board’s legal fight.
“The only option we have is to work with you,” said Enrico. “We have our disagreements on some things, but…we’re talking about the public school children in Hoboken that you represent. We have no other choice but to support you.”
Enrico asked if it was possible to keep the names of contributors to the legal fund anonymous. Gagliardi, the board attorney, responded that individuals could remain anonymous by giving cash or a money order or funneling their donations through one person who gives a bundled donation in his or her own name.
Full cost unknown
The board members don’t know yet how much money they’ll need for their fight, although school board president Ruth Tyroler has insisted that the board has already raised enough money to consummate the case.
A $50,000 budget item covered the costs of the school board’s special counsel for the HoLa lawsuit, Eric Harrison, from March 2014 to March 2015, but Gagliardi said that sum couldn’t be used to extrapolate future legal costs.
“You can understand what you’re paying a lawyer by the hour,” he said, “but the overall cost depends on a whole host of factors outside of the lawyer’s control.”
However, Gagliardi said further work by Harrison would likely come cheaper since most of his preparatory work for appellate arguments is already done.
“An appeal is not like a new trial where you start all over,” Gagliardi said. “The record is already created and the appeal is really filing briefs, making legal arguments, and at some future date, you have an argument, probably lasts about an hour, to a panel of appellate judges.”
Some suggested that making the names public could intimidate and discourage further donations.
“I’m not afraid,” said Christopher Munoz, who is also a vice-president of the Hoboken Education Association, and who donated $100. “I’m not afraid to advocate for my students, my school, my district, or my Board of Education.”
But Munoz added a note of criticism: “Why isn’t the Reporter doing a story about where Hola’s funding comes from – all the silent auctions, the wine tastings, all the things our school district can’t afford?” HoLa has supplemented its funding from the district with private fundraising – including Sabor de HoLa, an annual dinner that features wine tastings and a silent auction. Last year, donations netted HoLa $128,561 in total, equal to four percent of its yearly expenses according to the school’s Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Form 990. The school has been open about its use of fundraising and the identities of its donors.
Despite the fact that, as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, HoLa’s donors are not publically disclosed by the IRS, the school published a list of 75 individuals, couples, and companies that had given last year on its website: holahoboken.org/support/ho_la_annual_appeal_2014-2015/donor_list_2013-14/
Carlo Davis may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.