The majority of the Hoboken Board of Education candidates on the ballot in the non-partisan November 8th election participated in the only debate of this election cycle to discuss responsible spending, the referendum, partisanship, and more.
Video courtesy of The Pulse with Peter B.
By Emma Hot/Hudson County View
Held at AJ Demarest High School and co-moderated by HCV’s John Heinis and The Pulse with Peter B’s Peter Biancamano, the latter who is a former trustee, featured seven of the eight BOE hopefuls discussing issues for about an hour and 45 minutes.
The two slates both participated: “Kids First,” which includes Pavel Sokolov, Cindy Wiegand, and Donna Magen, as well as the “Leadership that Listens” trio – Trustee Alex de la Torre, Antonio Graña, and Leslie Norwood.
Independent Patricia Waiters was also involved, while the other independent in the race, John Madigan, a former trustee, was unable to attend after coming down with a case of COVID-19.
After the introductions, Biancamano asked the candidates about how they plan to keep school taxes stable.
Leadership that Listens indicated that it would be difficult to lower taxes in the short term, though Norwood said she’d focus on getting “the most out of any dollar.”
“We must raise taxes by two percent every year since we are classified as an S2 district by the state. We cannot cut taxes,” de la Torre stated. He also said that the district and charters need to work more collaboratively on payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) deals.
Graña mentioned how he believes that the taxes in Hoboken are relatively low and being a taxpayer himself, he understands the stress an increase in taxes brings on households.
Sokolov places emphasis on how the board needs to get a greater understanding of their financial needs and plan accordingly.
Wiegand called out the current Hoboken Board of Education for not knowing how to properly keep its budget in check. She suggests that they begin to audit their budget and use the “vast resources” provided by the city of Hoboken, which Magen also agreed with.
In a fiery response, Waiters said “we have to get rid of the local greedy politicians,” and criticized the board for not being transparent with their finances.
In retort to Wiegand and Magen, Norwood pointed out that their suggestions are already a regular occurrence in a school district.
Heinis posed the question as to how the candidates would develop a strategy to get all stakeholders back on the same page after the unsuccessful $241 million high school referendum in January.
Grana, who chaired the Friends of the New Hoboken High School committee, says he would like to “have a very open and transparent conversation with the community so they understand the concept of supply and demand.”
He also pointed out the demand for space is due to the 27 percent increase in Hoboken schools over the past eight years.
That team, specifically Norwood, spoke on the need for transparency between the BOE and the community, indicating that a community conversation is essential before a vote. She still pushed for making improving facilities a priority though.
“Over the past eight years, space issues and decades of deferred maintenance at all buildings will need to be addressed. We can focus on academics and facilities at the same time.”
Sokolov, a strong advocate of voting down the referendum, agreed that “there are capacity needs, there are facility needs.”
What he disagreed with is how the decision and voting process came to be. He believes that the knowledge of the referendum was “purposely withheld” from the preceding November ballot and that it builds a sense of distrust within the community.
“That’s how you basically disenfranchise and suppress the vote…Process matters,” he said.
Wiegand and Magen also acknowledged the infrastructure and capacity needs but do not agree with solving the problem via referendum.
“It’s an over-engineered way to address the problem. We need to focus on academics and our students,” rather than using the money to build a new school,” Magen said.
Waiters very adamantly said she was a “hell no” on the referendum and suggested renovating the schools they already have.
Next, Heinis shifted the discussion to public vs. charter schools in the city of Hoboken and asked each candidate how they would collaborate with the schools if elected.
Sokolov says he would like to develop the “best practices” between the schools and “end the politics and focus on the kids.”
“How lucky are we that we have so many choices here,” Wiegand, a chart school parent, said. As a trustee, she would like to see the schools collaborate as much as possible, but did not give a definitive answer as to how she would make that happen.”
In regards to collaboration between schools, Magen suggested that the students use the same facilities and begin working together more.
Again, Waiters was enthusiastic about the topic and called for respect for the charter schools in the city of Hoboken.
“They deserve the same respect and the same duty-free education like the public schools.”
Norwood went on to list what she and her slate mates plan to do if elected as trustees.
They pledge to never vote to revoke the charter of an existing Hoboken charter school, aid citizens who would like to lobby for more funding in Trenton, and those who would like to lobby for “space allocation and taxation for public infrastructure.”
“I look forward to working with any charter school to lobby our state officials for more funding,” de la Torre said.
When Biancamano asked about political affiliations, the candidates had some rather lively comments.
All candidates could agree that this should be a non-partisan election and that politics have no room in the board of education.
“I think party affiliation in a BOE race has zero place,” said Magen, who along with Wiegand are unaffiliated voters.
But with that in mind, the “Leadership that Listens” slate had no fear commenting that they all affiliate with the Democratic party.
Grana repeated how their political stances, “had no bearing on this election,” though stood by hitting the other team for “extreme” views that would be concerning for the school district.
“There’s no mudslinging, we publish facts, and the facts are there are opinions here that are in an extreme position and are endorsed by organizations that also harbor those same extreme opinions.”
Sokolov, the secretary of the Hoboken Republican Committee, “Things that Democrats claim that they are all about, they threw out for their own political gains. I had to educate people on what it means to be an involved voter.”
“Politics is getting dirty in Hoboken guys,” said Waiters as she warns the voters not to fall for the political games being played.
During rebuttals, Norwood said that she didn’t agree with Sokolov remaining a part of the local GOP group during the election, given that Joe Branco the chair of the party, is their campaign treasurer.
In response, Sokolov pointed out that two audience members, 5th Ward Councilman Phil Cohen and Councilman-at-Large Joe Quintero, were on the Hoboken Democratic Committee’s executive committee and that he’d be happy to resign if all three of them did so together.
There were a few questions that drew straightforward examples: on gun safety, everyone praised the district’s efforts to keep students safe and said they would push to do more. Similar responses were given on a question on LGBTQ+ inclusivity.
Furthermore, inquiries about bringing the budget to a referendum annually and whether or not they’d seek higher office, respectively, were met with everyone besides Waiters saying no, who joked that she wouldn’t close the door on running for president in the future.