The seven candidates running for Hoboken’s board of education in the November 6 elections, all tried to convey their passion, experience and insights into the district on Thursday night during a roughly two-hour forum at the Demarest auditorium.
While attendance from the public was scarce—roughly 60 people attended the debate, the vast majority of whom are already involved in local politics or hold elected office in town—the atmosphere was just as serious.
Questions for the candidates were submitted by the audience members, much like in previous years, and the night was moderated by Bob Bowdon.
The Move Forward candidates—Anthony Oland, Elizabeth Markevitch and Felice Vazquez—spent much of the time pointing out the weaknesses of the incumber majority. The Kids First team, in turn, defended the last three years, promoting the district’s new programs and flat tax levy.
“The budget can’t go down,” said Jean Marie Mitchell, who is running for the board of education for the third year in a row.
Because of the special aid the district receives, explained incumbent and Kids First candidate Ruth McAllister, “we cannot lower the budget.” The district has to conform to the minimum tax levy.
In turn, Felice Vazquez—who is running on the Move Forward ticket and moved to Hoboken about two years ago—said that Hoboken still spends too much money.
“We spend a third higher than the average,” she said.
The Move Forward candidates also mentioned recent reports in New Jersey Monthly and the Wall Street Journal that painted the Hoboken public schools in a not-so positive light.
“The facts and the news reports tell the story,” Vazquez said. “My opponents call this progress, I call this crisis.”
"I have lived in town for 27 years," said Markevitch, "from the day I got here there's one thing: Hoboken has poorly ranked schools."
Markevitch said she started attended school board meetings in 1995, when she was pregnant with her daughter. Markevitch was also the only candidate who brought up the termination of former theater director Paula Ohaus, saying that the Kids First majority didn't listen to the public.
The candidates also discussed the idea of converting back to a model where students are housed together based on grade level. Part of that would be to reinstate the middle school model. Superintendent Dr. Mark Toback recently introduced the idea, and has sent out surveys to parents in the district.
“Let the public think about it,” said Tom Kluepfel, who is running on the Kids First ticket. Kluepfel added that he would listen to recommendations on the topic from the community and educators.
Kluepfel, just like his political opponent Elizabeth Markevitch on the Move Forward ticket, is the parent of a Hoboken High School student.
Patricia Waiters, who is known to be passionate about the Hoboken public schools, is running independently this year. Waiters, a single mother of three, said that she took her school aged children out of the charter school and put them back into the Hoboken school system.
While the candidates kept it civil, the candidates' position on charter schools caused one point of contention.
"I see a candidate who is a director of development at another school," Kluepfel said, "I'm just saying."
Kluepfel referred to Oland, who is the director of development at Spanish language charter school HoLa. Move Forward's campaign treasurer, Frank Raia, is on the HoLa board.
"I am not currently a public school parent, I was," said Oland. "I have been very involved."
Other topics discussed included the school's legal fees (which are significantly higher than the state's average), the district's budget ("It's a large budget," McAllister said) and test scores.
"The previous administration cheated on the scores," Mitchell alleged. "They only cherry picked the children tested."
McAllister added that the creation of the Demarest Alternative High School also added to the skewed results, since it took the badly performing students out of the high school.
A little after 9 p.m., Bowdon wrapped up the debate—not before notifying the audience of the world series score—and the parties went their separate ways.
The school board elections are on November 6.