LETTER: ‘Flawed, rushed, & undemocratic’ process equals no vote on Hoboken school referendum


In a letter to the editor, Hoboken parent Matt Schwartz says a “flawed, rushed, and undemocratic” process has caused him to oppose the $241 million school referendum.

Dear Editor,

I am a HUGE proponent of public investment and public schools. I am also a parent of a Hoboken 8th grader and own a design firm that works exclusively with nonprofits, including extensive work in education equity.

So it pains me to say that I am a strong NO on the proposed high school. A vote to improve our school should be a no-brainer. I can’t imagine too many people don’t agree that our school infrastructure needs to be improved. It absolutely does.

But a failure of leadership has not earned the widespread, enthusiastic support that an initiative like this requires. Because an investment this big is as much about potential risks as it is returns.

As has been discussed, this process has been flawed, rushed, and undemocratic. All of us who live in Hoboken have not been given much time to learn about this plan, which has been in the works for years, or what the rules are about how it is created.

Like many, I have had to take a crash course in understanding its implications—and that is not fair or right. I may misunderstand some things. And there’s very little time to have those misunderstandings corrected. That’s exactly how misinformation spreads.

Given how important this is, we should all be angry about an environment like this being created by such a failure of leadership at the BoE. At the expense of children’s education.

Part of my learning has been a very respectful all-block email thread that’s been going around with my neighbors. One with many viewpoints.

Wouldn’t it have been great if we had all been given an opportunity to have this discussion in the open, outside our homes, and with more time to do our homework? To my mind, that’s what democracy looks like.

What I have learned makes it hard for me to believe this plan is a wise investment, that it will achieve its outcomes, that it won’t be a boondoggle—and worst of all, that the people at the BoE running this process haven’t intentionally created this process to obscure these potential realities.

Democracy demands transparency. And a community investment this consequential demands proactive involvement of the entire community that decides on it. There are many things for us to understand and countless trade-offs and projections to evaluate.

This learning and evaluation process should take at least a year, not a month over the winter holiday. Because the decision will affect everyone in Hoboken for a very long time.

It seems that the board of education has designed a process to intentionally minimize this essential input. Why? They have held no open town hall meetings, just a few one-sided presentations. Two of these were held between Christmas/New Years and on MLK day/holiday weekend—with no open discussion allowed.

I attended the one on MLK day and there were maybe 20 people there. We were forced to ask questions in the back of the room, not in front of others. It palpably felt like divide and conquer.

What’s notable to me is that so little of the focus from the BoE in selling this proposal is about how this project will improve educational outcomes. It wasn’t a focus at all in the presentation I went to—the very moment designed by them to convince me to vote YES.

If this new school will make a real difference in preparing all kids to succeed, then why isn’t there a tremendous focus on how it is integrated into a broader plan that will improve outcomes?

The fact is that Hoboken is 25th out of approximately 600 districts in spending per student in NJ. And for this outsized investment, the latest available numbers (2018) say that our math proficiency is 8% and English is 43%.

It sounds like we’ve made progress here since then, so those numbers may be a bit misleading.

And there are, of course, many complicated factors that go into student outcomes—systemic racial and economic inequality being two of the biggest.

No one thing will elevate student achievement. But there are things that are more or less likely to—and a finite amount of resources we can dedicate towards them.

A beautiful school with great facilities DOES of course help make people feel better about their environment. I’m a designer by trade. Designed experience does matter to how we think and feel. A lot.

But placing a $241M bet ($330M with interest) on school facilities making a significant difference in how we’re educating kids is difficult—especially if we’re not evaluating it against any other options and have only a few weeks to decide.

To place that bet with confidence, I would have appreciated a lot more focus from BoE leadership on how this plan will elevate student achievement—and less focus on the town being able to use a hockey rink and our property values going up.

How does an extremely expensive ice hockey rink—one of the facility’s signature features help improve educational outcomes? Particularly for lower social-economic status families who are unlikely to play the sport? Why are we paying a fortune to build it?

Does the community need it? If so, should it be housed in a school as opposed to a facility that’s fully open to the community? A lengthy debate about this would be helpful.

But never mind the process, here’s the one thing I learned at the school presentation that really alarmed me. And I think it should alarm everybody.

The BoE says that they have not done ANY projections for the operating costs to run this new school. Which will clearly be multiples more expensive than the current school. Really?

If they haven’t, that’s beyond irresponsible if you are going to borrow $241M for a construction project. And if you did the projections and aren’t sharing those numbers, well…?

So, why does this matter?

Because I learned that Hoboken cannot directly raise taxes to pay for operating costs. So, unless Hoboken suddenly has significantly more tax revenue, then it will need to have another referendum to raise taxes to pay school operating costs.

How much? We don’t know because the BoE either hasn’t done their work to estimate them or is hiding then. And if that referendum were voted down? We’ve got the very real possibility of a building that falls into disrepair.

How much does it cost to maintain a hockey rink that’s suspended on the 2nd floor of a building (versus be being on the ground as is typical)? How much more per year will this school cost versus our current (outdated) one? Can we afford that? I’d like to know.

So, this project sounds like it very well may be two tax increases, not one. Or a school that can’t be properly maintained and potentially falls into disrepair.

In the end, have we heard compelling evidence that this project is likely to achieve the real result we need: better education for all families in Hoboken?

To me, this proposed school plan looks more likely to be a boondoggle that will take a decade to build, not five years (does anything get built quickly in Hoboken?), that will need more taxpayer funding to maintain, and may become a financial anchor around the town’s neck.

What a shame, because voting yes for a new school should be a no-brainer—and I’d be one of the most persuadable people to vote yes. But once I started looking into this with the little time I’ve had, I have become really upset at this failure of leadership.

We all deserve better. The town can do better. And we should not be made to feel like we are a bad people if we are not in favor of this specific plan and process.

Matt Schwartz
Hoboken parent

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    • That’s a bit much, but he did throw out racist tropes like “ your kids will be bussed to schools in’Newark!’ …”

      Rutgers and NJIT are great BTW