Six candidates on two tickets are running in the Hoboken Board of Education election on Nov. 8 to fill three seats for three-year terms. Incumbents Jennifer Evans, and Irene Sobolov are seeking reelection. The other candidates are divided into two slates, Parents United and Forward Together.
Francis Benway, Jessica Nelson, and Jennifer Rossini are Parents United.
Benway, a lifelong resident and Hoboken High School graduate, teaches 10th grade history at Union City High School and has worked for17 years as an educator, coach, and athletic director. His work for public and private schools, he believes, has given him a unique perspective. His two children, 6 and 10 years old, attend the Callabro Elementary School.
Nelson, a two-year resident, has twin 5 year old daughters who attend the Hoboken Charter School. A single parent, she works in the real-estate business, currently at Prominent Property Sotheby’s in Hoboken selling luxury homes in Jersey City, Hoboken, and Manhattan. She says after living in Jersey City she moved to Hoboken for the schools.
Rossini, a 13-year resident, is vice president of T.V. sales for Richline Group, a Berkshire Hathaway jewelry company. Her14-year-old stepson lives in Ridgewood and her 5 year-old special needs son attends kindergarten at Wallace Elementary.
Sheillah Dallara and incumbents Evans and Sobolov are the Forward Together slate.
Dallara, a stay-at-home mom, is director of the Hoboken Special Needs Parent Group. A founding member of the district’s Special Education Advocacy Committee, a parent representative for the Hoboken Early Childhood Advisory Council, and chair of the Special Needs PTO Committee, she is also special events director for the Hoboken Family Alliance.
Dallara, a six-year resident, has two children aged 5 and 6 in Wallace Elementary. Her youngest is in the self-contained program that serves children with special needs. She narrowly lost the election last November to board president Thomas Kluepfel.
Evans has lived in Hoboken since 1999 and gave up market research to become a stay-at-home parent. Three years ago when her youngest daughter began preschool she reentered the workforce and is office manager for a local business. Both her daughters attend Wallace Elementary. Evans has been a board member for three years. She is vice president and chairs the Governance and Personnel Committee with past experience on the Facilities Committee. Evans is a member of the Community Liaison Board of the high school student center and the district’s representative on the board of trustees of the Hoboken Public Library.
Sobolov, a lifelong resident, has served on the board since 2009. She has served on the Finance Committee, Curriculum Committee, Athletic & Performing Arts Committee, and sits on the Communications Committee and Governance and Personnel Committee. A founding member of the Hoboken Family Alliance when her son was born, she volunteered for the public schools once her eldest son entered PreK3. Sobolov has three sons, all of whom went to Hoboken public schools up to the eighth grade.
The board administers a $69.7 million budget, partially raised from property taxes, and oversees personnel, curriculum, and programs.
In May, the board approved a 3.6 percent increase in the tax levy. A school tax increase was necessary, school officials told the Hoboken Reporter in May, because nine new teachers were hired, payments to charter schools were higher, new educational programs began, special education costs grew, and state aid was relatively flat.
For the average residential property in Hoboken, which currently has an assessed value of $519,000, the surge will reflect an additional $51 on tax bills per year.
As for state aid, which has remained stagnant in recent years, the Hoboken district is receiving an additional $25,960 (or 0.24 percent increase), rising from last year’s $10.66 million to $10.68 million.
Before a 2012 change in state law, the public voted on the school budget each April. Now without exceeding a state-mandated cap of 2 percent officials do not need public approval. The state can make exceptions if the school population is growing, and is allowing Hoboken to exceed the cap without requiring a public vote.
Sobolov said that she “would want the [residents] of Hoboken to understand that the board has worked hard to spend residents tax dollars wisely and carefully by crafting a budget that serves four growing and thriving publicly funded districts.” This refers to the Hoboken public schools and three charters schools; the Hoboken Charter School, Elysian, and HoLa.
“After three years of flat taxes, growth in all four districts, as well as some smaller increases in other areas, triggered a tax increase of approximately 2 percent for the traditional district and 2 percent for charter school increases per year,” said Sobolov.
Charter school funding comes from the local tax levy. If the board hadn’t raised the taxes to cover the charter school growth, the “traditional public school would have had to cut that amount from its own budget to make payments … in this case, more than $2 million over four years.”
Evans said she would agree only to raise taxes when appropriate. She said the tax levy increase by the board covers the costs of the additional students in both the district and charter schools, plus increased costs in areas like healthcare, new programs like Project Lead the Way, increased length of a school day, and improved facilities.
Dallara said that an increase in taxes should not be a surprise when residents consider an increase in enrollment of the public and charter school, new facilities and programs, healthcare, and wages.
Benway, Nelson, and Rossini say it is difficult for them to realistically discuss the school budget when they haven’t worked with it, but stressed school spending should be treated like a business, cutting redundancies and inefficiencies. They also stated that they would like to see funding go directly to the children and bring back some arts programs that were cut and other extracurricular activities.
In April 2015, the Hoboken school board voted to appeal the state’s decision to allow HoLa charter school expansion to 7th and 8th grades. After suffering a setback, Sobolov and Evans voted in February 2016 to continue the legal action, along with Kluepfel, Sharyn Angley, Leon Gold, and Monica Stromwall.
In May, Gold underscored that $548,000 of the budget is going to HoLa due to its expansion.
“I just want people to be aware [that the expansion] is costing Hoboken taxpayers,” he said.
Evans said she would continue to support the appeal “in order to protect the educational and financial welfare of the district. I believe that the DOE did not do its job when approving the HoLa expansion…and we need the court’s help in resolving this issue and moving forward.” The appeal is being financed with private funds and she would welcome future donations. The suit is currently in Appellate Court awaiting oral arguments.
Charter legislation was originally intended to provide educational choice for families, but Sobolov said it should not at the expense of one set of students over the other.
Dallara called for an intermediary to review the data carefully and that an extra step is needed to figure out the ramifications of this important matter. Benway and Rossini said that they would not support publicly funding the lawsuit but that private funds are another matter. Nelson said any she would be against funding, public or private.
Parents have complained of segregation in the public schools, saying classrooms and schools lacked diversity.
Dallara, a Latina, says diverse classrooms bring “a sense of empathy into our classrooms for children to learn how to get along with people of different backgrounds.” She believes Superintendent Dr. Christine Johnson has focused on equity across the district. She cited the Passport to Learning program.
Evans says school choice can lead to students of certain racial and socioeconomic backgrounds clustering at certain schools. She said she is proud that all district schools receive the same programs, services, curriculum, and technology, which was not always the case.
Sobolov says families should choose their school locations. The district has worked hard to ensure a balanced student population and equal access to programs, staff, facilities, and resources, she says, and these efforts are working. District schools are seeing an improvement balanced enrollment.
Nelson declined to discuss segregation because of the realtor code of ethics which prohibits comment on safety and ethnic makeups of communities.
Rossini said in the Wallace and Brandt schools her son attended she has seen a lot of diversity. She said the board “would have to figure out how to make the schools more diverse but also take into consideration distances from home.”
Benway said, “Honestly, if [segregation] were to be true, it would be a concern. I think that as a diverse community, if we could function on realms of the athletic field where all kids play together, I can’t see why they should be separated in schools.”
High school and middle school separation
This year the Hoboken Junior Senior High School was separated physically within the same building. The middle school now has its own entrance and exit, its own wing, and its own staircase. The middle school is on the third floor; students share some common spaces with high school students but not at the same time.
“They will share the cafeteria, the gym, and the music room, but never shared simultaneously,” said Superintendent Johnson. Johnson said she did not separate the schools, as some thought, because of two troubling incidents last year.
“From a programmatic perspective it was hard to identify what was needed, and middle school students need different things,” Johnson said. “They do much better when they are separated from older children, as it gives them space to be 12- or 13-year-olds and be silly without worrying about being embarrassed.”
Some board members would like a totally separate building.
Dallara said she will work with Johnson to analyze enrollment data and explore different facility options. Evans said she is “thrilled” with the middle school program. As to further separation, she said, “While a stand-alone program would give the middle school an even stronger identity in its own space, the downside would be that it would no longer have access to the High School facilities, teaching staff, and programs.”
Sobolov said she believes there are benefits to a shared space, and both options have pros and cons. She believes as enrollment increases, additional space will be required.
Nelson believes the two should be separated. “Middle school children should not be in the same building as high school children.”
Rossini also believes the middle school should have its own building. “I don’t believe 12 year olds should be around 17 year olds.”
Benway said they should be in two separate locations because “at some point there will be interaction whether that’s before school, after school, or outside the school. It can lead to a lot of problems that a parent has to handle.”
Grab bag of issues
Benway’s concern with curriculum at the high school level led him to the new STEM program and wondering why it is just starting to be implemented. “We are way behind other school districts.” He and other members of the Parents United slate said they were concerned with families leaving town because of the school system.
Rossini said, “I have a lot of friends this year who have moved out of town because they think they can’t long-term send their children to school in Hoboken.”
She said she would like to either improve the high school or change the school’s reputation.
Rossini said she would also like to see more communication between the teachers and parents as well as the district to the families.
Nelson said she was concerned with the high school’s small number of graduates this past year.
“We are never going to compete with Brooklyn and a lot of the other areas that have exploded real estate wise until we can fix our schools,” she said.
Dallara said she would like to see improvements in school lunches, offering vegan and gluten-free options. She would also like to see more “social-emotional curriculum.”
“Studies show improved attention, emotion regulation, compassion, and reduced feelings of stress when kids learn about mindfulness,” she said.
Evans said she would focus on student achievement.
“That does not mean teaching to the test, but rather improving skills so that students are more prepared for success in school and life. As that occurs, test scores will continue to improve as well.”
Sobolov said, “together with Dr. Johnson, I will continue to support a clear mission of student success and high expectations, support strong instructional leaders, provide innovative and diverse programming, provide all necessary supplies and materials to support the programming and staff, provide a safe and nurturing environment, promote strong parent and community relations and devote district time, energy and resources into the classroom.”