The nine Hoboken Board of Education members briefly walked out of their meeting on Tuesday night, calling a recess when one mother wouldn’t yield the floor after her five minutes to comment were over.
At the same meeting, another parent, Patricia Waiters, a former candidate for the board and City Council, accused longtime board member Irene Sobolov of allegedly recruiting new board member Elizabeth Walker for the board because of her race and overlooking other qualified candidates.
In January, the board appointed Walker, a resident of the Hoboken Housing Authority projects who is a parent, to fill the seat that had been vacated by Brittany Montgomery in December. Montgomery said she had to travel more often for work and could no longer serve on the board.
On Tuesday, Waiters alleged that this appointment was done unethically.
“I’m asking that Irene Sobolov resign her seat or it won’t be just a complaint; it will be a movement,” said Waiters.
Waiters, who is African American, said it was unfair that the board chose Walker, another African-American woman from the projects, instead of a more qualified white woman who had also applied to fill the spot.
“This young lady was white and more than qualified and she’s not picked and that’s not fair,” Waiters said to Board President Thomas Kluepfel.
Waiters was referring to a parent in downtown Hoboken who also had applied for the job.
She said Sobolov went “into the Housing Authority and recruit[ed] an unqualified candidate and picked her because she was black.”
She also said the district has been turning a blind eye to racist practices within the district.
Courtney Wicks, a Union City resident and mother of a district student, said there is a “clear pattern of discrimination” against children of color in the district.
“The pervasive failure of the Hoboken Public School district to provide a quality and equitable education to black, brown, and low income students is harming student outcomes,” said Wicks. “The inability to unlock the human potential of all children regardless of their color or economic status is what is at issue here.”
She added, “These patterns of discrimination include racial tracking, segregating schools at the elementary school level, limiting access to pre-k 3/4 programs and Advanced Placement classes programs and instruction, subjection to harder discipline practices, raising rates of classification at home instruction, and intentionally marginalizing parents and employees of color via hierarchies.”
During Wicks’ public comments, Board President Thomas Kluepfel told her time was up, as each speaker is allotted five minutes, but she refused to yield the floor, stating, “You are going to have to arrest me.” The board called for a recess and left the room while she finished speaking.
About 10 minutes later, after she had left, the board returned, finished public comments, and members of the board addressed the allegations.
“There seems to be confusion about the board seat,” said Sobolov. “When someone resigns from a seat we put an ad in the paper with a deadline to apply and it’s shared through social media. Everyone here has spoken to people about joining the board.”
She said she spoke to Walker at a neighborhood community dinner hosted in the Housing Authority about the board.
Waiters and Wicks had made other comments about Sobolov that Sobolov said were not true. Waiters referred to an incident last year in which Sobolov and another politically involved person had traded texts about a local mayoral candidate (who is homosexual) and local father, calling them “Butt Buddies.” The texts accidentally got leaked to others. Waiters pointed to this as evidence of prejudice.
“How much more are you going to keep letting a board member get away with? This unethical,” asked Waiters.
Waiters herself has been accused of making discriminatory comments in the past. At a Housing Authority meeting in 2014 she alleged that many real estate businesses with Jewish surnames had opened since Mayor Dawn Zimmer (who is Jewish) took office, and that Zimmer had only appointed Jews to city boards. “Since Dawn’s mayorship, we have a real estate place on every corner,” she said at the public meeting. “What is his name? Weitzman, Heller, Einstein, every corner, okay?” The comment came up at a time when Zimmer was being accused of avoiding appointing minorities to boards.
She apologized for the comments in a letter to The Hoboken Reporter a few weeks later.
Walker was sworn in at a January meeting. During her comments from the dais, she said, “I live in the projects and from my knowledge and from the people I talk to and know, we do not feel like we are being represented by the people who come here and speak. When we have a problem we follow a chain of command and that problem is addressed by the teacher or the principal before it even has to reach the board.”
She said, “The ‘projects’ hold me as their voice and the board, they listen to me, they respect the opinion. They did not pick me because I’m black or from the projects. They picked me because I know what I’m talking about. If you are not part of the solution then your part of the problem, and I want to be part of the solution, and that’s why I am here.”
Gary Enrico, president of the Hoboken Education Association, and board member John Madigan both said they have known Sobolov for a long time and believe that she is not racist.
Enrico added, “This is a show they put on because of the cameras and they want to be on TV and will do anything to get on.”
He added that it’s “hard to sit up there with people telling lies.”
“If you are not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem.” – Elizabeth Walker
In January, Superintendent Christine Johnson released a Diversity, Inclusion and Global Learning Report during the Board of Education meeting, presenting a strategic plan to ensure the district becomes more diverse. Currently, the elementary schools have a racial imbalance. The data shows that Calabro School in the center of town has a 53 percent minority population, and Wallace Elementary School uptown has a 50 percent minority student population. However, the Connors school downtown shows a 90 percent minority population while Brandt in the upper center of town has 26 percent.
The report analyzes the student make-up of the district and the different needs of each school due to shifting demographics, and outlines advancements and achievements made by Hoboken public schools over the past three years.
Last month, Johnson also announced that the school demographics will start to become more similar school to school, starting with next year’s kindergarten classes.
“All schools of the initial placement have between a 25 to 30 percent minority footprint range and a 70 to 75 percent non-minority footprint range,” said Johnson at a Board of Education meeting. “And all schools upon initial placement have a 19 to 25 percent economically disadvantaged footprint. So we were able to keep everything within a five to six percent range and variation upon placement.”
The district attempted this year to place kindergarten students within .8 miles of their home. The location was one of three factors determining placement.
The district is creating six advisory subcommittees in the areas of Human Resources, Enrollment, Curriculum and Programs, College and Career readiness, Global Learning, and Health and Wellbeing.
These subcommittees will present new policy ideas to the Board of Education in June so that the district can best serve each child equally. (For more on the study see past story at https://tinyurl.com/hobokenschoolstudy)
Several parents spoke during public portion, thanking the district and its staff of teachers for the work they do with their children.
“Thank you for the education my children are getting in the Hoboken Public School District,” said resident Gina Dobson. “I’ve been in the district six years and never doubted for a second that the teachers and administration aren’t creating the best possible learning environment for my children. My children always come bursting in with something to tell me, whether it’s their STEAM project of getting robots to move.”
Resident James Castiglione said, “I’ve lived in Hoboken 20 years and I’ve seen a tremendous transformation in the city and specifically in the school district. When my wife and I decided to make Hoboken our permanent home one reason we did so is because of quality of the schools and our experience and knowing that our daughter is getting a quality education.”
April Clark, a mother with children in Wallace School, said, “I’ve been working as a high school math teacher at Riverdale, an IJ district in Bergen County … and in my opinion the curriculum here is more rigorous and competitive then the district I teach in.”
Marilyn Baer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.