Seven of the eight Hoboken Board of Education candidates on the November 8th ballot attended the New Jersey Public Charter School Action Fund meet and greet at 10th and Willow yesterday.
The event began with a short introduction from Peter Biancamano, of The Pulse with Peter B., and some brief remarks from NJ Public Charter School Association President Harry Lee.
“We wanted to hold this event to dispel the notion that local board of education elections do not impact charter schools, because they do. And so working all across the state, we know that the local board of education can impact charter schools in a variety of ways,” he said.
Examples he gave included renting out buildings to charter schools, providing transportation to students, sports teams that have students from public and charter schools, and payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreements.
In Hoboken, the PILOT revenue allocation for 770 Jackson St. remains unresolved and hasn’t received much attention since the spring of 2020.
During remarks capped at five minutes each, candidates had the opportunity to address the crowd of about 70 people, discuss why they were running, and why they felt they could be an advocate for the three local charters.
The candidates were sat alphabetically by their first names and were each introduced by Biancamano when it was their turn to speak.
Trustee Alex De La Torre, the only incumbent seeking re-election as part of the “Leadership that Listens” team, has lived in Hoboken for about 16 years and has a sophomore daughter in Hoboken High School and another daughter in 8th grade at Hoboken Middle School.
While he supported the $241 million school referendum in January (which failed by a 2-1 margin), he admitted that he, the board, and the district must improve.
“The referendum vote made it loud and clear: we need to do better, I need to do better. An endeavor of the size and magnitude that was proposed needed to be articulated and explained well before being recommended to the public,” he said.
“All of us in this room represent four distinct public school districts, however, ours is the only one that is a taxing authority. For our district to address any issue that requires investment, it behooves us to keep all constituents informed and educated, so when the need arises, it does not comes as a surprise.”
Antonio Graña, a zoning board member who chaired the Friends of the New Hoboken High School campaign account in January, is also a part of the LTL team and has served as a PTO Officer at Connors Elementary and Hoboken Middle School.
During his remarks, he explained that charter funding comes straight from Trenton and local officials can’t do anything to change it.
“We’re very concerned: this is a debate that takes money out of the normal process, which is tax revenue collected. Trenton has a formula, they control that formula, and they determine how the money is distributed,” Grana stated.
“When we take the money outside of the system and make it a political problem instead of a procedural problem. And I think it’s really important how we think about how that conversation, as a community, there is a lot of new development coming into this city.”
Grana also said he’d be happy to take a train to Trenton to advocate for more state dollars, later acknowledging that the district failed in having a true community conversation on the referendum prior to Election Day.
Cindy Wiegand, a member of “Kids First”, expressed anger over last week’s mailer from LTL that slammed her team as right wing extremists (she is an unaffiliated voter), in particular for saying she “petitioned her child’s school” to eliminate COVID-19 safety protocols.
She painted the attack as a low blow and feels that she and her kids are owed an apology, since the campaign piece omitted key context that was misleading.
“I will also note that I have not seen calls for any disavowal, like I have been called for, renunciation – or pick your verb – or most importantly an apology to my children for the omission of crucial information that would’ve given context to things that were said about me and inflict a maximum damage campaign to my character.”
Wiegand, who unsuccessfully ran for a council-at-large seat last year, also called for an issue-focused campaign for the remaining two weeks.
Furthermore, she noted that she has taught literary classes for a non-profit group, sat on the board of her alumni club, provided social and education services to homeless families and veterans, and is currently the secretary of the Friends for the Hoboken Charter School – which she would resign from if elected.
Donna Magen, also a part of Kids First, said she would like to act as a liaison between the Hoboken public and charter schools if elected to the BOE.
“I don’t see a reason why there couldn’t be a subcommittee within the board of education, the tradition board of education, that maybe met once a quarter with the public charters to discuss things like theatre programs or sharing facilities or a cost effective, cost modeling system where costs are shared amongst ourselves,” she suggested.
“Our children want to grow up together,” she added, indicating she wanted a fair and equitable education for all students.
The third and final member of LTL, Leslie Norwood, a securities attorney who is also a member of the Hoboken Public Education Foundation since 2017 (though she has been inactive during the campaign and would resign if elected), presented several long-term plans for schools.
She said that the district needs a three- to five-year strategic plan developed with the community, all documents such as the long-range facilities plan should be on the BOE website as soon as their filed with the state, along with community input on any “significant capital project.”
Norwood also indicated she was “surprised and disappointed” that the referendum was announced after the November BOE race last year, given the size and scope of the project and the short time until the special election.
“I voted yes because of the dire need for capital improvements to school facilities, but the process was suboptimal, to say the least. I believe the BOE should’ve done a much better job in engaging the community and being transparent in the process.”
Additionally, she pointed out that the BOE trustees cannot go against state law in turns of committing or decreasing funding for charters, though committed to not revoking or non-renewal of a Hoboken charter.
Patricia Waiters, who in running independently and has been a regular presence on the school board ballot for the past 15 years, noted that she is a lifelong resident who grew up in the housing authority and helped put six children through the public schools: her three children and her sister’s three children.
“I do my homework: I’ve been born here in the 60s, I’ve put kids through the system. You know what they do now ‘oh, her kid ain’t in the district, why’s she running.’ Everybody should run, every kid is important, whether they in school or not,” she asserted.
” … I’m not selling y’all a dream, I’m telling y’all the honest truth: the only way the board of education is gonna change [is] when you change the head of the snake. If you got the same administration, okay, all the ones with the college degrees and lengthy resumes that’s supposed to be so bright, you got the same administration where you continue to put the same people in the chair: why do you expect different results?”
The last candidate to speak was Pavel Sokolov, the third member of Kids First, a former Rutgers University Student Body president who said he knows first hand how to get Trenton and D.C. dollars allocated to public schools.
A certified CPA, Sokolov said that as trustees they need to be looking at the interests of the taxpayers since the board decides how public monies are spent.
“I think something that we definitely need to partner with the charter schools on is how they achieve what they do with such limited funds. I want to address directly the PILOT: personally, I don’t like PILOTs, especially, when they don’t give money back to education,” he explained.
“I think that money needs to go to education and that money deserves to go the charters as well, unequivocally. I think we can learn so much from each other … I’m running because I love public education, I love good governing. I did not leave the former Soviet Union to have the exact same tactics happen here again.”
He also criticized the current BOE for unanimously approving having a referendum at their November meeting after 40 people spoke out against it, and also said he was glad to hear his opponents were interested in sticking to the issues after attacking him for being a Republican in the aforementioned mailer last week.
The other independent candidate in the race John Madigan, a former trustee, was unable to attend.
The non-partisan race’s only debate will be on Friday at AJ Demarest Middle School, located at 158 4th St., at 7 p.m. and will be co-moderated by this reporter and Biancamano.