Hoboken’s school board wants to build a new high school but there’s no justification for it. The district’s enrollment is leveling off and the $241 million price tag is ridiculously high. It will saddle taxpayers with much higher taxes for many years when we’re trying to make Hoboken more affordable, not less. In fact, on a per seat basis, the proposed school might end up being the most expensive one ever built in the U.S. The mayor, city council members and concerned citizens need to speak out against this misguided idea.
The current high school opened in 1962 and is in very good shape. It needs only “minimal facility changes,” as administrators point out. More importantly, it’s almost two-thirds empty. The capacity has been listed at 1,200 students but it had only 428 for the 2020-21 school year. That’s up very slightly over the previous few years but down from 469 in 2014-15 and 621 in 2005-06.
That 428 number is misleading because roughly 90 of those are School Choice students from out of town who don’t need to be enrolled here. So the true number last year was around 338 actual Hoboken residents attending Hoboken High. Are we really going to build a 1,200-student high school–the same size as the current school–for 338 students when it’s doubtful this number will be rising much if at all?
The plan calls for the middle-school students to move into the current high school, but there were only 387 last year, including out-of-town Choice students. So the current high school building will be even emptier than it is now. There was a spurt in the district’s k-5 enrollment during the mid- to late 2010s and overall k-12 enrollment reached 2,230 last year. But that’s roughly the same enrollment we had in the mid- to late 2000s.
Now, the days of increasing enrollment are certainly over, at least for the foreseeable future. The district’s total enrollment, including pre-k and charter schools, fell by 19 students in 2020-21 vs the year before. The administration expected 294 more k-12 students to enroll in the district’s schools last year than actually did. This year the decline will most likely be bigger. Even in kindergarten, the district estimated that fewer children would show up in September (the final count isn’t announced yet). Building a new high school is clearly problematic. As the school superintendent has noted, “The state Department of Education prefers for districts to plan for existing enrollment needs rather than those it anticipates years down the line.”
A big reason enrollment is declining is the pandemic. Countless families packed up and left for the suburbs and they aren’t coming back. Hoboken’s main advantage — that it’s close to jobs in Manhattan — has been largely wiped out by remote work. Companies are losing the battle to get their staff to work from the office every day. If the district pushes ahead with this plan, city and school officials will be sticking us with a costly and embarrassing white elephant.