From a field of nine interviewed candidates, the Hoboken Board of Education appointed its first-ever female superintendent of schools this past Tuesday. With eight votes in favor and one abstention, the board approved a five-year contract with Dr. Christine Johnson, the current superintendent of Boonton’s public school district.
Johnson was one of four finalists who participated in a second round of interviews with the school board in February. Hoboken’s current assistant superintendent Dr. Miguel Hernandez was also a finalist.
If her contract is affirmed by Hudson County School Superintendent Monica Tone, Johnson will replace Hoboken interim superintendent Dr. Richard Brockel on July 15.
Johnson will earn $157,500 per year, the maximum state-allowed salary for a superintendent in a district of Hoboken’s size, with the potential for additional merit bonuses.
She received mostly positive comments and congratulations from the school board members. Trustee Peter Biancamano, among others, complimented her seven-year-plus stay in Boonton and expressed hopes that she would display equal longevity in Hoboken, which has seen significant turnover in its top administrators over the last decade.
According to school board president Ruth Tyroler, Johnson requested a five-year contract while the last permanent superintendent, Dr. Mark Toback, had only requested three years.
Trustee Dr. Leon Gold said he had struggled with his affirmative vote for Johnson. “I’m not sure if the situations, skills, and abilities that made Dr. Johnson a great superintendent in Boonton will transfer well to Hoboken,” he said.
“I had to represent myself and defend myself from what I thought was [a political attack].” – Peter Biancamano
Johnson is no stranger to the budgetary travails that Hoboken’s public schools currently face. After Boonton Public Schools saw $1.2 million in state aid cut in 2010, Johnson froze her own salary for five years and convinced the local teachers’ union to accept a nine-month pay freeze in order to avoid cutting educational programs and 25 jobs in the district.
School board trustee Irene Sobolov was not legally permitted to participate in the search or final vote under a new regulation because her “sister has worked for the [Hoboken school] district for over a decade.”
Lies, damned lies, and statistics
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, a state ethics complaint filed against Hoboken Board of Education trustee Peter Biancamano was revealed after he requested that the school district reimburse $7,500 he had spent on a lawyer to defend himself.
The complaint against Biancamano was levied in 2013 by school board president Ruth Tyroler, then the board’s vice president. It was withdrawn with prejudice in a legal settlement between Biancamano and Tyroler signed last July.
As a result, no charges against Biancamano were ever published by the New Jersey School Ethics Commission. A spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Education said he could not “confirm or deny any alleged ethics case” due to state regulations.
The ethics complaint arose from Biancamano’s 2013 campaign for Hoboken City Council on the slate of Councilman Tim Occhipinti, who was running for Mayor. A flyer that bore Biancamano’s name and was distributed by his campaign contained two purported statistics about Hoboken’s public schools that Tyroler believed to be false and misleading.
The first stated that Hoboken taxpayers “pay $64 million for only 2,000 students.” In fact, the $64 million that roughly constituted Hoboken Public Schools’ total budget in 2013 funded around 3,100 students, including roughly 700 preschool students and 625 charter school students, according to a copy of the settlement obtained by The Hoboken Reporter.
In the settlement, Biancamano acknowledged that he was responsible for the “inaccurate” statement because it was issued in his name, and said he “did not intend to mislead the public.” However, Biancamano asserted that he “did not write the language and or see it before the flyer was distributed.”
The “2,000 students” line was repeated by several of Biancamano’s slatemates and supporters during the 2013 campaign, including former school board member Frank Raia and Councilwoman Beth Mason.
The second statistic challenged by Tyroler, found on the same flyer, stated that “Hoboken schools spend about $30,000 yearly per student.” The passage claimed that this sum was “more expensive than a year at Notre Dame University!”
According to the settlement, Biancamano found the per-student cost by subtracting charter school payments from Hoboken Public Schools’ 2013 operating budget and dividing it by 1,700 students, the approximate population of the district’s five traditional schools, then rounding up by $3,000.
Tyroler asserted that Hoboken Public Schools’ actual per pupil cost was much lower (the state Taxpayers’ Guide to Education Spending listed Hoboken’s budgetary cost per student as $21,171 in 2013-14). In the settlement, Biancamano contended that his statistic was “a reasonable interpretation of the relevant data, but [acknowledged] that there are different methods of calculating per pupil cost,” and that Tyroler’s method was also reasonable.
Although not discussed in the settlement, the flyer’s figures for student spending at the University of Notre Dame are also incorrect, assuming that the prestigious Indiana institution was what “Notre Dame University” referred to.
According to the U.S. Department of Education IPEDS database, UND charged $44,605 a year for tuition and fees alone and spent $59,932 in core expenses per full-time student for the 2013-14 school year.
In her complaint, Tyroler alleged that Biancamano had violated the Hoboken School Board’s Code of Ethics, which requires that trustees “provide accurate information” and “refuse to surrender [their] independent judgment to special interest or partisan political groups.”
Tyroler said it was her ethical obligation to report what she considered to be an ethical violation by another trustee.
Why such a high-paid lawyer?
Several school board trustees criticized Biancamano for retaining Metuchen-based attorney David Rubin, whose going rate is $450 per hour, to represent him before the School Ethics Commission. Rubin was the Hoboken school board’s attorney in the 1990s.
Since joining the school board in 2011, Biancamano has been a strident advocate for trimming Hoboken Public Schools’ spending wherever possible, including emphatic calls for a cap on legal fees incurred by the school administration.
“This is the same board member that’s complaining that we’re paying our attorney $185 an hour,” said board trustee Leon Gold. “Anytime a specific board member talks about saving the county money or this board money, I hope you all think of $450 an hour.”
“This case didn’t have to be defended,” Gold continued. “I think he could have defended himself.”
Tyroler did not retain a lawyer for the Ethics Commission proceedings, and instead represented herself.
Biancamano stood by his actions, saying that he had to defend his name. “I had to represent myself and defend myself from what I thought was [a political attack] as a board member who doesn’t normally run under the banner of other board members,” he said.
“I actually did shop around for an attorney but I was looking for a representative who had great knowledge of School Ethics Law, which led me to Mr. Rubin,” he stated in an email.
Biancamano said he paid Rubin much more than $7,500, but only submitted one check for Rubin’s original retainer for reimbursement.
Despite their criticism, six board trustees voted to reimburse Biancamano because he has right to receive such a reimbursement under state law. Biancamano and Tyroler abstained, and trustee Monica Stromwall was absent.
Carlo Davis may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.