After a member of the Hoboken school board accidentally sent an offensive text to all of her colleagues and the superintendent of schools, she apologized last week and declined to resign.
More than a dozen members of the public attended Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting to support board member Irene Sobolov after the controversy came to light, while two others criticized her.
The controversy began on March 24 when Sobolov sent out a message that included a screenshot of 1st Ward Councilman Michael DeFusco’s Facebook page and a supportive comment left by him from local dad Brian Murray, a former school board candidate. The comment supported DeFusco’s “vision.” When Sobolov sent out the photo involving the pair, she wrote, “butt buddies,” a negative term often meant to characterize two people as extremely close.
Sobolov accidentally sent the text to the superintendent of schools and the other eight board members instead of to a friend.
DeFusco is rumored to be preparing to run against Mayor Dawn Zimmer -- a past ally of Sobolov -- in the November mayoral election. Since DeFusco had recently been allied with Zimmer, this has raised the hackles of some in her camp. Zimmer has been in office since 2009, when she ran for the spot during her first term as a councilperson.
Some said “butt buddies” was especially offensive because DeFusco is the city's first openly gay councilman, and it could be taken as a gay slur.
Since news of the text message broke, Sobolov has apologized to DeFusco and members of the public.
“Our city should have no tolerance for that kind of offensive language.” – Dawn Zimmer
Mayor Dawn Zimmer decried the use of the term.
“Our city should have no tolerance for that kind of offensive language or for the distribution of it other than for the purpose of condemning it,” said Zimmer.
During the Hoboken Board of Education meeting Tuesday April 11, Madigan called for Sobolov to resign, to no avail.
The board members voted 3-4 on a non-binding resolution asking her to resign.
‘I realized my mistake’
DeFusco said last week that he was “hurt” when he learned about the text, but accepted Sobolov’s apology and hopes this will be a “teachable moment.” He had supported Sobolov’s, recent board campaign.
“After making progress and breaking down barriers as the first openly gay elected official in Hoboken, I was hurt to have learned about Mrs. Sobolov’s choice of words,” said DeFusco in a later interview. “I’ve accepted Irene’s heartfelt apology with the understanding that we’ll discuss expanding anti-bullying education and initiatives within Hoboken public schools. LGBTQ acceptance comes with understanding, and although we’ve made tremendous strides locally and nationally, there’s still a long way to go.”
The other person in the screen shot was Brian Murray, who ran for a seat on the board in 2013 and founded a Hoboken Dads group in 2011. Since he ran against Zimmer’s candidates, he has also been a target of political ire from her allies.
Murray said that Sobolov has not reached out to him or given him an apology. He said he first found out about the text message through rumors but didn’t get any specifics until he saw it in the media.
“I’m disappointed she hasn’t reached out to me,” he said.
He added, “I do prefer to choose my ‘teachable moments’ rather then having them come to me. I have a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old at home when this ‘teachable moment’ arrived on my doorstep.”
But he added, “We hope that some good can come of it for the community we are looking to find the silver lining in the whole situation.”
He noted that it “raises awareness that there’s a lot of work left to be done in our community and we certainly hope this is a good first step in shedding a lot on this.”
Murray is not far off; aside from any prejudice, Hoboken elections often bring out the cruelty in people. The board has been divided over other issues, such as how to deal with state funding laws regarding the charter schools, leading to angry discourse online.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Madigan’s resolution to have Sobolov resign was seconded by Peter Biancamano.
Madigan said that if a student were caught sending the same text, he or she might be considered a bully.
And if a teacher did it, he or she should be fired, he said.
“If we condone this, next time, they will say ‘If a board member is above the law, then so are we,’ ” said Madigan.
Members of the public also spoke.
The public weighs in
Roughly 13 residents spoke in favor of Sobolov keeping the position, and said she is not homophobic.
Resident Paul Somerville said he and his husband Allan Kratz have known Sobolov and her family for over 30 years.
“We moved to the block where the Korman family has lived, Irene’s family,” said Somerville. “The Kormans welcomed us into their home… it’s not in Irene’s DNA to be bigoted in any way…when I heard about the text I thought, wow, I never heard that term before… I can see how it can be misconstrued. But the only one who has a right to be offended in my opinion is Michael DeFusco, and he has let it go.”
“She is the most politically correct and inclusive person I have ever met in my life,” said Ivan Sobolov, Irene’s husband.
He called the resolution to ask her to resign a “vendetta that Madigan has against my wife… truthfully I think he is unqualified to sit on this board.”
Resident Sung Kim said, “I wanted to come up here tonight and say a warm thank you to Irene Sobolov for being a caring board member. What I love about Irene is she is always dreaming of way to make the schools better.”
“Irene has been a champion and will continue to be a champion for the children of Hoboken and the community is all the better for it,” said resident Vera Sirota.
“She’s the exemplar as a public servant in this community,” said resident Phil Cohen, a past county freeholder candidate allied with Zimmer.
He added, “To members of the board, when we talk about setting examples for our students… I think trying to embarrass and humiliate your colleague is not a good example.”
Long time resident and politico Michael Lenz also spoke on Sobolov’s behalf.
“When I was a kid, if you went to the corner store and you got shortchanged, people would say you were gypped,” he said. “Gypped is derogatory to Gypsies. We didn’t know that at the time… I’ve known her for 30 years and I’ve never heard her say anything derogatory.”
“I question how this evening became a public matter when I assume the communication was private,” said teacher Roseanne Versace.
But Lynn Danzker, who ran for the Board of Education in 2014 and has raised funds for the Hoboken Dual Language Charter School HoLa – a school that the board majority has tried to stop from expanding because they say it takes too much funding -- spoke in favor of Sobolov’s dismissal from the board.
“Irene has been serving on the board of a long time, and if you’re on her side politically and you support her, she loves you,” Danzker said. “But if you disagree with her or have different political ideas, then she is not the sweet nice person everybody thinks.”
She noted, “The Board of Education trustees have responsibilities to the Hoboken community district and students to adhere to their policies...One is the anti-bullying policy.”
The board held a vote on Madigan’s non-binding resolution for Sobolov to resign. Board attorney Vito Gagliardi said it would not "compel any action" as "a Board of Education does not have statutory authority to ask a sitting board member to resign.”
Board members Britney Montgomery, Biancamano, and Madigan voted for the resignation while Sheillah Dallara, Jennifer Evans, Sharyn Angley, and President Thomas Kluepfel voted for her to remain on the board. Sobolov abstained. Trustee Mark McNamara was absent.
There are seven long months left until the election.
Marilyn Baer can be reached at email@example.com.
District students honored
At Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting, Wallace School teacher Lauren Eakin gave a presentation on a new program that promotes Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math education, a statewide challenge called “STEAM Tank.” The program, developed by the New Jersey School Board Association and the U.S. Army, was a competition for the gifted and talented students from grades third to sixth grade in which they had to create a new invention, modify an existing invention, or develop a solution to an identified problem.
“Across the district, 18 teams developed very creative concepts,” said Eakin. “In keeping with the Shark Tank idea, the students had to make a virtual pitch that was viewed by a panel of Hoboken’s administrative staff, which included Superintendent Dr. Johnson and Assistant Superintendent Mr. Fitzhugh, among other professionals. With their help and a rubric to guide them, each pitch was scored and the top teams were nominated to advance to the Regional Competition.”
Sixth graders Sanjna Samrai and Hudson Matullo were chosen to advance to the regional competition for their idea of a disposable storm drain collector which is a disposable mesh screen that is hooked onto existing storm drains to catch trash which can be picked up or thrown away.
According to Eakin, three other teams of students were nominated to advance to the regional competition, as they earned the most votes for their inventions.
The fourth grade team consisted of Deeya Bavishi, Zoe Magaletta, and Faith Stancyzk. Brianna Frias was nominated for their Speedy Pollution Project, which is a speed boat that helps clean up the ocean.
Fifth grade team Alexa Bracero, Mable Blischke-Villavicencio, and Kendall McDonough was nominated for their “Detachies” -- rings that can be turned into a necklace.
KidWatch, a creation by sixth graders Lesley Frazier and Miz Mendoza, aimed at preventing children from being left in the car and forgotten by their guardians, is a camera that shows the baby’s surroundings to a connected smart watch that will vibrate every 20 minutes to remind the guardian where the baby is.
Students of the month
The Hoboken school district also awarded its March Students of the Month by selecting one student from each school whom they believe is exemplary.
Assistant Superintendent Gerald Fitzhugh II awarded each student with a certificate for their achievement and hard work.
This month, the students were first grader Jaiden Martinez from Brandt School, second grade student Anthony Lopez from Calabro School, sixth grader Pedro Gonzalez from Connors School, second grader Naysia Ortiz from Wallace School, eighth grader Brianna Medina from the Hoboken Middle School, and Adrian Rey, a senior at Hoboken High School.