Perhaps it’s only appropriate that the last Hoboken Board of Education meeting before the April 27 school board election was fraught with drama. Students and supporters of longtime popular high school theater director Paula Ohaus filled the usually empty school board room on Tuesday in a meeting that lasted until nearly midnight.
Two weeks ago, Ohaus announced her resignation from the district, claiming “harassment.” However, on Tuesday, right before the meeting, she withdrew her resignation and remains the director.
“Ms. Ohaus makes art-makers, groundbreakers, and world-changers.” – Alumna Colleen Kirk
Toback said at the meeting that the issues included Ohaus driving students in her own personal car, allowing charter school students to participate in plays, and letting students stay at her home.
Toback explained that many liability issues arose because of the reported problems, and after he met with Ohaus to present the concerns, she resigned.
At the meeting, Toback noted that the school board had approved a policy in December that would exclude students from schools not operated by the school board from Hoboken High School activities.
However, Ohaus said she wasn’t aware of the policy until right before “Hairspray” was presented.
Ohaus, who helped revive the theater program at the high school 15 years ago, has led the students to numerous theater awards and has a reputation for inspiring many students at the school.
Election season underway
The meeting also had political undertones, as board member Carmelo Garcia, who is up for re-election, blamed a rival school board faction, “Kids First,” for the alleged mistreatment of Ohaus.
“I’m ecstatic to know that Ms. Ohaus is coming back,” Garcia said at the meeting. “This is a victory for the students.”
Vice President Theresa Minutillo, a frequent opponent of Garcia and a member of Kids First, said at the meeting that she found it “upsetting” that people would claim Ohaus’ department did not have the support of the school board.
But another board member, Ruth McAllister, questioned the actions of Ohaus. McAllister said she comes from a family of teachers and they would never allow students to stay over at their home.
Frances Rhodes-Kearns, a Board of Education ally of Garcia and another candidate for re-election, said it was the parents’ decision to allow students to stay at her home.
Ultimately, McAllister said, it’s an issue of liability.
“It’s about protecting the district,” McAllister said.
Ohaus was invited to speak to the board at the meeting.
“The past two and a half years have been very difficult,” Ohaus said. She said that morale has been low in the school system, and she believes she has not had the support of the Board of Education.
“I felt incredibly harassed and I have a lot of e-mails to prove that,” she said.
Ohaus added that she believes she’s worked “in an environment of fear.”
Supporters speak out
The meeting was like a season finale of the TV show “Glee,” as many theater students gave impassioned statements supporting Ohaus.
Ariel Cruz, a sophomore at Hoboken High, asked the board members to support Ohaus, and to remember that their decisions ultimately affect the students.
“One thing lost in everything going on is the students,” Cruz said. “As many of you board members state during your [elections], students are first. But I feel that one thing we really need to focus on are the students…there aren’t students here to represent us.”
Cruz commended Toback for speaking with the students before the meeting about Ohaus’ resignation.
“I learned so much because Ms. Ohaus has done and shown us so much,” Cruz said. “We don’t know everyone’s individual situation…Ms. Ohaus is there [for us].”
Jason Hendricks, a parent in the district, blasted the board’s etiquette during the meeting.
“This talking over each other and cutting each other off; it demonstrates a maturity level well below some of the high school kids here,” he said. “Set an example for the kids.”
Hendricks said he supports the inclusion of all of all Hoboken’s children, not just in-district students, in both sports and theater performances.
Namibia Donadio-Mejia, an alumna of the high school and theater program, returned to speak in favor of Ohaus.
“Having personal relationships with mentors and professionals is something we should foster,” she said.
Colleen Kirk, another alumna of the program, was voted the best actress in the state while at Hoboken High School under Ohaus.
“The only reason I won that award is because of Ms. Ohaus,” Kirk said. “Ms. Ohaus makes art-makers, groundbreakers, and world-changers.”
Liz Mulholland, a frequent board meeting attendee, said that it can be extremely frustrating because there are state laws that stop educators from getting too involved in students’ lives, but laws have to be followed.
“It’s really sad,” Mulholland said. “At the state level we have to make these changes. We can’t make changes on the local level.”
In the hallway outside the meeting room, students greeted Ohaus, hugged her, and thanked her for deciding to stay in the school system.
After meeting with Toback, Ohaus ultimately believed that she would be able to continue to work well in the district.
Nine resignations; other business
In addition to the drama-filled public portion, the board also said goodbye to nine members of the district.
Teachers have been retiring at higher rates across New Jersey amid concerns that their pensions may be affected by budget cuts in Trenton.
The members of the district who announced their resignation are: Veronica Scappatori, a teacher at the Wallace School; Bartholomew Reilly, the principal at Wallace School; Irene LaBruzza, the Hoboken High School nurse; Anne Marie DeMaio, a fifth grade teacher at Calabro School; David Rivera, a bus aide; Pasqua Ciocce, a transportation aide and security guard; Bienvinedo Cueto, a teacher at Hoboken High School; Michael Jacobsen, a teacher at Wallace School; and Michael Craven, the transportation coordinator.
The board discussed a new plan that may be coming soon that would allow students and parents to see homework assignments, grades, and other information online.
Toback also announced preliminary plans for some adult education classes that may be offered at Hoboken High School.
Chris Munoz, a Hoboken High School teacher, was in attendance with his club, the Hoboken Hispanic Club. It was approved for a new speaker series that will bring notable Hispanics from the community to speak to students. Assemblyman Ruben J. Ramos Jr. (D – Hoboken) and Rep. Albio Sires (D-13th Dist.) were approved as the next speakers. Garcia had already spoken to the students as part of the series.
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com