The Hoboken Board of Education heard public comment on the proposed $241 million school referendum for the first time at last night’s meeting, with the majority of public speakers coming out against the project.
By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County View
BOE President Sharyn Angley said it is part of an overall need to address overcrowding, noting that the city’s population is up 180 percent since 1990 and that trend is expected to continue.
“Development of the Northwest section of Hoboken is expected over the next decade. This proposal prepares the Hoboken school district for … population growth,” she asserted.
There are currently three elementary schools, one middle school, one high school, and the pre-k program, which Angley said comes out to 3,095 students in the system.
The latest New Jersey Department of Education shows 2,238 students enrolled in Hoboken’s K-12 program.
Angley argued that while the high school’s size is adequate in the short term, they have a pressing need for elementary and pre-k class space. She said the Hoboken student body had increased 154 percent since 2010.
Furthermore, many classes are nearly at capacity also noting that there are 21 kindergarten classrooms in different buildings and that no additional property will be purchased.
The project would tentatively be completed in time for the 2025-2026 school year, with a 2.2 percent debt obligation spread over 30 years would finance the costs of construction, which would come with a roughly $496 tax increase per household.
The Mount Vernon Group Architects again showed the three-dimensional walk-through of the plan that was first presented at the planning board last week.
Joshua Sotomayor Einstein said the meeting was rushed and called it an “abuse of democracy” to applause from the crowd, later calling the process “underhanded, rushed and as opaque as possible.”
“Enrollment today is not at historic levels. Year after year, the district is consistently wrong on enrollment prediction.”
He also predicated the project would go well over budget, as well as calling it an endeavor to attract children from wealthy families to increase test scores to districts.
Einstein was one of 25 members of the public who blasted the referendum, compared to just four people in favor of it.
“I was embarrassed for you. Do you realize how bad your math is?” Maureen Sullivan, a former school board member, said to great applause and jeers from the crowd.
She said the population has only increased 81 percent versus 154 percent since 1990.
“None of us knew anything about this. Y’all were working on this behind the scenes … If you did the numbers right, there is no tidal wave. Maybe if you opened this to more people, then it would help. Why was this a secret?,” Sullivan questioned.
She argued that the building is designed for a nearly double projection of the existing high school student body, therefore they will have capacity for another decade.
“We do not need a rushed building with millions of dollars being spent without proper notification to the public,” Manny Solar Rivera said.
He also noted the financial burden of holding a special election for the referendum and criticized the board of education members who ran in November for not discussing this.
“Since we’re an Abbott District, I’m curious how are we able to float a bond?,” resident Eduardo Gonzalez asked.
He said others cannot because the School Development Authority (SDA) is supposed to cover the cost of new construction and that pre-k funding could be at risk because of this.
Gonzalez was curious about the maintenance costs for the building, including a zamboni to maintain the ice rink, estimating it to be about $300 million overall, as opposed to $241 million.
Additionally, it would call for an additional $11 million dollars a year in debt, which would cause a rise in taxes by 21 percent to cover the cost.
“Why didn’t you let anybody know? Can somebody answer that question?,” Cheryl Fallick asked.
Angley said the Mount Vernon Group has been the district’s architect of record for 15 years and have discussed long-term plans for a while.
Still, Fallick asked why the state was not contributing towards the $241 million cost of the project and why there was zero community input.
“It feels corrupt. It feels like it hurts everything else in the community,” she said.
“There actually is a mechanism. The SDA is supposed to fund projects for former Abbott districts. Unfortunately, what has happened is they had money, and they ran out of money,” said Hoboken Superintendent of Schools Dr. Christine Johnson.
She said if the SDA does not have enough money, they can go out for a bond. Johnson noted they are willing to give $30 million to renovate Demarest in two years.
She added that Abbott status would have to be taken away by a judicial ruling.
“I am absolutely incensed that the school board kept it from us during the election. Not a peep from anybody,” Sheila Brennan, who ran with Fallick on an unsuccessful council-at-large ticket last month, said to applause from the crowd.
James Castalone was one of the few in attendance who public stated he’s on board with the plan.
“It’s certainly normal for districts to build new facilities. Hoboken has gone a long time without one,” he stated.
Nevertheless, the theme that the district was rushing this process remained a common talking point.
“Your demonstration was one of the most quick and inadequate demonstrations I’ve ever sat through. I can insult you because I and the public deserve better,” exclaimed Mary Ondrejka.
“I’ve lost all credibility with every single one of you. I don’t trust you. You’re lying to me. All of you: they’re cowards.”
She also argued other developed nations like Germany and Sweden do not emphasize athletics in high school in the fashion the proposed high school does.
Daniel Tumpson said the hit to property owners outweighs any positives.
“The cost to each property owner far exceeds any benefit,” he began, claiming the project benefits developers and politicians more than the citizens of Hoboken.
Mayor Ravi Bhalla and his allies on the council came out and endorsed the project on Monday, citing a desire to improve the educational future’s of students.
The school referendum will be held on Tuesday, January 25th and residents will have the ability to register to vote until January 4th to vote.
The next public meeting is scheduled for December 21st at 7 p.m. at Hoboken High School.
The first couple hours of the meeting streamed live on our Facebook page and can be viewed here.