Emotional Turnout Backs Two Popular Teachers Fighting to Keep Their Jobs
BOE hears support for theater director Ohaus and Johns Hopkins program director Hillenbrand.
A packed crowd showed its support Tuesday for two popular teachers fighting to keep their jobs, but the Board of Education approved a measure anyway that could cost theater director Paula Ohaus and Johns Hopkins Program head Cheng Yen Hillenbrand their positions.
Technically, the board extended the deadline for School Superintendent Mark Toback to notify non-tenured teachers that their contracts will not be renewed, from April 30 to May 15. Otherwise, it would be too late legally for him to give the required notice to Ohaus, Hillenbrand and four other unidentified teachers who may also lose their jobs.
The Board voted 5-4 to change the notification date, during a heated and emotional School Board meeting.
Hillenbrand, Ohaus and the four other teachers have already received non-renewal notices.
The decision whether or not to renew a teacher's contract lies in the hands of the superintendent and has to be approved by the School Board. The names of the four other teachers who were to lose their jobs were not on the agenda, but Ohaus and Hillenbrand have chosen to take their case public instead of conducting it privately with the Board of Education.
Parents, teachers and students packed the room on Tuesday night, causing the meeting to go well after midnight. The members of the public were there to speak up against the change of the notification date and to urge the superintendent to renew the contracts of Hillenbrand and Ohaus.
Superintendent Toback addressed some of the concerns of the personnel matters during his opening statement.
The potential dismissal of Ohaus and Hillenbrand has placed Toback in the hot seat with district parents only a few weeks into his job. As he staunchly defended his decisions on the personnel matters, many of those in the audience would not accept his explanations and strongly urged him to know the history of the two educators before making a decision.
"I just feel the superintendent needs to take his time before making these important decisions involving the students in our district," Ohaus said. Ohaus briefly resigned from her position last month, because she said she felt harassed in her job.
“I had excellent support [from the community],” Hillenbrand said. “They were very generous in their compliments and I really appreciate their understanding in what I wanted to do for the kids.”
Toback said that the nonrenewal determinations—which he said he has not officially recommended to the board yet—were based on performance issues and concerns over accusations made about these teachers. During the public portion of the meeting, it was insinuated that many of these accusations and evaluations were initiated by prior Acting Superintendent Dr. Peter Carter. Neither Ohaus nor Hillenbrand have ever had poor performance reviews within their years of service respectively until of late. Ohaus has been criticized in the past for hosting sleepovers at her house for the students in the theater program.
As a compromise, Toback offered Ohaus to continue as the director of the theater arts program and end her job as teacher at the high school. Toback said he did not want to offer Ohaus her teaching position, where she could gain tenure, based on his concerns about her performance and conduct with students.
Ohaus did not accept the compromise.
A heated exchange flew back and forth between Toback and members of the audience. Some board members also expressed their concerns, and Ohaus chimed in on her own defense.
The stated concerns of conduct included Ohaus having students in her house and taking students to places without parental permission. Ohaus, on the other hand, did show slips of paper, which she said she has parents sign giving their consent for any activity outside of school including taking students to visit and interview at colleges for potential admission.
The back-and-forth discussion stalled the regular proceedings of the meeting, which were returned to momentarily at 9:10 p.m. in order to complete board president reports and committee reports. Once those were concluded, the public portion began. The floor was opened to several upset speakers, who were allowed to say their piece to the board and Toback.
The community uproared in standing applause when Ohaus and Hillenbrand were up to address the Board of Education, and in one instance a student cried out, “We love you Ms. Ohaus!”
"And I love you guys too," she answered. But, she added, "it seems to get me in a lot of trouble."
Ohaus proceeded to give her side of the story about the events leading up to her non-renewal, saying that Toback has not been in his job long enough to make a determination like this.
"For 14 years I have dedicated myself to the kids here in Hoboken," Ohaus said. "My position is to help these kids get to where they need to go and I have done that. I have never been involved in anything like this in my whole life."
In much the same way Hillenbrand defended herself and her contributions to the district. A certified kindergarten through 5th grade teacher and mother of a gifted child, Hillenbrand came to the Connors School in 2006, and soon after brought the John Hopkins University Gifted and Talented Program to the school district. The program is meant to deliver challenging educational opportunities that develop the intellect, encourage achievement, and nurture social development of advanced students.
Hillenbrand serves as coordinator and runs the program with a handful of teachers, which look to excel and nurture gifted and talented students to reach their full potentials.
“When I came to Hoboken I found enough to start a program for a segment of kids who are under represented,” said Hillenbrand.
With Hillenbrand’s possible non-renewal, the future of the program has been called into question by parents and some board members. Toback has assured them that the program will continue.
Assistant Superintendent Walter Rusak and Toback said Hillenbrand's contract will not be renewed, because she doesn't have the proper certification to conduct the program with students beyond the 5th grade.
Hillenbrand rebutted that her role in the program is not as a teacher, but as a support and aide for students to encourage their advancement.
If certification is required for her to oversee the program, Hillenbrand said she would be happy to obtain it, and just requested that the board be fair and give her time to do so. However, Dr. Toback and Rusak claim that she had been informed of this requirement in 2008 through a written letter, which Hillenbrand claimed she never saw nor signed.
Hillenbrand also said that she did not feel she had been given ample time and opportunity to make her case at the meeting.