The Hoboken Board of Education held an open forum on their $241 million school referendum last night, where the conversation centered around the timing, rationale, and costs of the project.
Several questions from the audience expressed concern about January 25th date for the special election, indicating that many voters would not be up to speed on the issue by then.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Christine Johnson responded by noting that back in 2004, the BOE proposed a conceptual design that had received approvals, but the situation because “politicalized” and the the referendum never ended up happening.
This led to millions of state Schools Development Authority dollars to be allocated to Union City instead of Hoboken, Johnson said, later adding that the January referendum would ensure that the four-story, 374,700 square-foot school will be able to open by September 2025.
A few residents on hand remained unconvinced this was the best course of action.
“It’s almost like that I’m hearing from you that the board wants to make sure that there’s no slip ups this time: that it goes through a little bit easier and faster,” stated Mary Ondrejka.
Johnson responded that wasn’t their goal at all, noting that last time residents were unable to get their voices heard at all.
Board of Education Trustee Ailene McGuirk chimed in to remind everyone on hand was the primary function of the board is supposed to be.
“The role of the board of education is to provide a thorough and efficient education for every single student who enrolls. And part of that thorough and efficient education is to have a roof over them,” she said.
“So we have a responsibility … to provide a thorough and efficient education which includes space. So if we see demographic issues coming up, and a lack of space, and we don’t act on it, we are abdicating our responsibilities,” she said to applause.
Josh Sotomayor Einstein, who has been outspoken against the project since day 1, said he felt their past experience led them to try to push the project through as quickly as possible with minimal public participation.
“That’s what I believe to be the truth,” he said to some applause as well.
Not every member of the public spoke out against the endeavor.
Shweta Gursahani said the architectural plan has been available for weeks and that there’s no reason anyone shouldn’t have the tools necessary to make an informed vote next month.
“The only decision to be made here is do you want to vote yes or no. Personally, I feel that I’m able to do that in this time frame that we’re doing given that I have all the details … The discussion is just to make sure everyone is comfortable with [how] their voting: I feel like there’s still enough time to that.”
Pavel Sokolov, another resident who also serves at the secretary of the local GOP committee, asked if the public would have the opportunity to see a new plan if the referendum was voted down next month.
” … If it doesn’t pass, the school district has to wait one year before they put another vote up. They have an option in that one year to either revise the plan or keep it the same,” Johnson explained.
Maureen Sullivan, a former school board trustee, asked how the district could expect the taxpayers to foot such an expensive bill, noting that the state wasn’t chipping in a penny. She also wanted to know if any other New Jersey municipality has done something similar.
“Former Abbotts aren’t eligible to get anything and that’s a little bit of a challenge because the SDA has no money, they’re supposed to be able to fund the projects, but we’re not eligible for the 30 percent [debt service aid],” the superintendent stated.
Sullivan still said it was “crazy talk” and “way out there” to expect taxpayers to absorb all the costs from the project.
“In your opinion it’s way out there,” interjected Jim Vance, prompting a brief shouting match between the two.
Afterwards, everyone in attendance had the ability to ask questions to school officials at three “break out” stations.
In an interview, Johnson told HCV that the school district has approximately 3,000 students total and the referendum would pave the way for a new Demarest middle school, and while she was unsure of the full projections off hand, she said the new high school is being built for 814 students.
She defined that as the “true capacity” number, indicating that “academic capacity” is closer to 1,200.
The superintendent also addressed the cost of the project, which would see a tax increase of roughly $500 per household if approved.
Johnson noted that the amount of money put up front includes hard and soft costs with contingencies and escalation costs built in, which includes seven percent, or about 17 million dollars, that could go back to residents.
“If the escalation does not come to fruition or contingencies are not necessarily needed, that money in a bond referendum for schools is required to go back to the taxpayers.”
Bond counsel and financial advisors would put their heads together to figure out what that dollar amount would be, but in any event, Johnson said that money could not be kept by the BOE.
She also said that after studying Bayonne’s school facilities plan, the district believes there’s a good chance the revenue the district takes in from the ice skating rink could cover the costs of maintenance and staffing for the rink.
This was the second of five opportunities for community members to speak about the ambitious plan, with three more planned for the new year.