A debate on school funding dominated the Hoboken City Council meeting on Oct. 21 as the public and council spoke passionately for about four hours.
At the center of the debate is a payment to the city from the development of 7 Seventy House at Seventh and Jackson streets through a 30-year Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement ratified in 2016.
The council earmarked a portion of that payment to the “Hoboken School District” in a 2016 resolution since the district would lose revenues from the agreement, because no taxes would be collected.
Four years later, community members are arguing whether the allocation of some $243,000 should be distributed to the city’s three charter schools and the Hoboken Public School District or just the public school district.
A resolution sponsored by Councilman Ruben Ramon on the Oct. 21 agenda seemingly sought to end the debate by allocating some funds to each of the four entities this year. It further stipulated that in future years, the city, the Hoboken Board of Education, HoLa Hoboken Dual Language Charter School, Elysian Charter School, and The Hoboken Charter School “will work with the NJ Department of Education to determine how to record these payments to the general tax levy, to benefit the funding of all four schools and offset future tax increases for the citizens of Hoboken.”
The resolution would have divvied up the $243,000 by giving approximately 78 percent of the funds to the Hoboken Public School District, roughly 9 percent to HOLA, roughly 8 percent to Elysian, and Roughly 5 percent to the Hoboken Charter School.
A divisive issue
Parents, residents, and school officials debated the allocation of funds and the legality of the resolution during public comments at the virtual council meeting.
Jeff Tennenbaum, a parent of a charter school student, said that if the council voted against the resolution it would be against the original intent of the 2016 resolution sponsored by former Councilman Dave Mello, adding that it would “penalize 30 percent of public school students,” which “feels irresponsible, does not feel like it is done in good faith, and would set a terrible precedent.”
Board President of HOLA Charter School Nicole Cammorata said, “All our children are important,” noting that the funding formula for charter schools in Hoboken is based “almost entirely “ on the school tax levy.
“It’s all of our kids who suffer when we create a PILOT because that creates a reduction in taxes that reduces the amount [of funding] for every single Hoboken public school child,” she said. “If 770 Jackson was in fact paying property taxes, that money would be added to the local levy and allocated to all of our kids.”
“To not make charter schools whole … would be unfair to charter students because the state funding formula is based on the citywide school tax levy, and the PILOT takes money out of the big bucket on which that calculation is made,” said Resident David Curtiss.
Several speakers said that allocating funds to the charter school directly goes against the state’s funding formula.
“I’m really, really disappointed in the council members who voted to delay this payment and entertain a system that’s unethical since it takes funding away from the original intended recipient, which is the Hoboken Public School District,” said Monika Cross, a parent with children in the Hoboken Public School District,.
“Do words mean anything to this city council?” questioned Vera Sirota, who argued for funds to go to the district. “When negotiations are brokered and pledges are made, the right thing do is follow through.”
Hoboken Board of Education Counsel Vito Gagliardi said,“The Hoboken Board of Education does not challenge the opportunity for charter schools to benefit from a PILOT program, but it is very concerned at the methodology chosen by council this evening because it would be unlawful.” He said that the council is not entitled to make payments to charter schools under the law and that under the law charter schools are not entitled to receive them.
He said the city should seek to have the state funding formula changed to include PILOT payments as if they are tax revenues.
Hoboken Board of Education President Sharyn Angley said the funding was intended for the Hoboken Public School District because the payment is meant to compensate taxing authorities that would lose tax revenue due to the PILOT agreement. Charter schools are not part of the agreement.
She and several other residents argued that enrollment for charter schools is capped by the state, while the Hoboken Public School District must accept children who move into the city and live at 7 Seventy, and provide them with an education.
Council seeks compromise
The council withdrew the resolution from the agenda on the advice of counsel.
Council Vice President Vanessa Falco suggested that the funds instead be used by the city to provide activities for youth, such as recreation and art programming, summer camps, and employment opportunities, which would be open to all kids.
“This isn’t defunding anyone,” said Councilman Michael Russo. “This is gifting. We have no obligation to give any funding, zero, to any school system. But we, in 2016, not ’17, decided that’s what we wanted to do.”
He added that the resolution in 2016 was non-binding, so “it doesn’t matter what the intent was in 2016. We can do what we want right now.”
He went on, “We had parents come onto the meeting tonight literally at each other’s throats about funding for our children … This should be a win for our children, and it’s become a horrible situation.”
Councilman Ruben Ramos said he would like to find a legal funding mechanism with the NJDOE to “move something forward.”
Council President Jen Giattino said she would like to create an informal committee of council members, representatives of the Hoboken Public School District, and the charter schools to find a compromise.