With Election Day just weeks away, the Hoboken Electoral Council race is shaping up to be the most contentious in Hudson County.
Just under 10 months after a polarizing referendum on a A new $241 million high school has failed, eight candidates are vying for three seats and only one is incumbent. The Jersey Journal asked this year’s nominees about transparency, post-COVID-19 needs, facilities and more.
There are two lists of three candidates and two unaffiliated candidates.
The Leadership That Listens slate includes Alejandro De La Torre Jr., Antonio Graña and Leslie Norwood. De la Torre, who works in finance, was named to the board in 2018. Graña, who works in business management, is a Zoning Board Appeals Commissioner and involved with Connors Elementary and Hoboken Middle School PTO. Norwood, a securities attorney and federal lobbyist, is a member of the board of directors of the Hoboken Public Education Foundation, Brandt PTO and the Hoboken Special Needs Parent Advisory Group.
The Kids First slate is made up of Donna Magen, who works in sales and hospitality; Pavel Sokolov, CPA (and employee of Advance Publications, the Jersey Journal’s parent company), high school anti-referendum campaign leader, and chairman of the Hudson County Young Republicans; and Cindy Wiegand, who works in consumer insights and ran unsuccessfully for city council.
The unaffiliated candidates are John Madigan, a former board of education, and Patricia Waiters, who works in school district safety and president of a union for guards, teacher’s aides and paraprofessionals (a role which she said she would quit if she wins). Madigan did not respond to interview requests.
Transparency and referendum
Transparency is arguably the hottest topic of the election campaign this fall. The current board has been roasted over the winter for its handling of the January referendum on a new Hoboken secondary school, and the Leadership That Listens and Kids First lists feature transparency as a key pillar of their platforms.
In a heavily criticized decision, the board waited until late November to announce that the new high school proposal would be up for a ballot in a special election in January, limiting public debate over a $241 million spending.
When asked, Sokolov and Wiegand offered concrete changes they believe need to be made to achieve increased transparency, including gathering community feedback before plans are finalized, holding ongoing forums, and posting consistent surveys. . Magen did not provide specifics on how the board should involve the community, but called the referendum “a perfect example of something that should have involved the community from the start and in a very more significant”.
Norwood offered a handful of ideas for new transparency-focused efforts, including a quarterly mailing on school developments and livestreaming board meetings.
“All public documents, such as the long-term facilities plan, should be made public on the BOE’s website as soon as they are filed with the NJ BOE,” Norwood said. “Community input should also be sought on any major capital project through a variety of meaningful ways prior to project finalization, including: stakeholder meetings, surveys, and focus groups.”
She and Graña agreed that the council should have involved the community more in preparing for the referendum vote, but Graña said he felt the council had already started to fix this through recent community roundtables and had not offered other ideas for new initiatives. De La Torre, who was on the board that delayed announcing the high school plan, now says the referendum could have been handled better with more community involvement. Now, he says he wants to work with the district administration and the city government to publicize the district’s major initiatives.
Servers said engagement with the wider community is long overdue, but that winning back the trust of black and brown families, many of whom she says have felt underserved by the district for years, is her own challenge. Her personal connections to these communities and her care could help bridge that gap, she said.
“Hopefully if I win it will inspire them to come out because they will feel like they have someone to fight for them,” Waiters said.
Key District Challenges and COVID-19 Response
De La Torre, Norwood, Waiters and Magen all see school-related issues as the biggest challenge facing the district. For Graña, it’s an aging infrastructure, and for Sokolov, it’s a lack of unity.
Those concerned about students’ academic experiences had a range of concerns. For Norwood and De La Torre, it’s student success. Norwood said she wants to continue to bring new academic offerings to schools and see student test scores rise. De La Torre said there should be more holistic assessments than standardized tests and that improving facilities would improve student achievement.
“Elementary schools and colleges are crowded, and so art, music and library spaces are sacrificed,” De La Torre said. “How can we expect our children to be great readers if we can’t even give them a library to explore their passions, get excited about reading and build their skills? »
Servers fear the policy has diverted the council’s attention from the student experience. She says students are beleaguered by disciplinary practices that separate them from their classrooms. She pointed to other chronic issues like fighting and bullying.
Magen’s main concern is the loss of learning in the event of a pandemic, and she wants the district to create an extensive after-school tutoring program.
“We can tap into our community for volunteers by leveraging our local Stevens (Tech) retirees and students,” she said. “We can also partner with colleges in Hudson County. We just have to reach out and put those programs in place.
Graña, meanwhile, said that as student enrollment increases, facilities need to be upgraded and that he will prioritize public engagement on the issue so that it receives the care she deserves. Sokolov wants to fix what he described as a “lack of trust” between residents and their school board.
“Good programs created and improved are underutilized because too many families choose not to attend high school,” he said. “I truly believe that a true, authentic partnership will impact the trust that the wider community will have in the high school and therefore we will see an increase in enrollment in the upper grades.”
Candidates offered various solutions to the challenges created by mandatory and optional remote learning periods during the pandemic.
From the Leadership that Listens slate, there were suggestions to add math specialists in each school and classroom teacher trainers, from Norwood, and a focus on benchmark exam results as a way to develop teaching strategies, from Graña.
Kids First offered more mental health resources for students and teachers, partnerships with community organizations and members, and shared resources between schools. Sokolov also suggested ensuring that teachers are well paid.
Waiters says recovering from the pandemic will take patience and students would benefit from any measures that would make school a quieter and more comfortable place to go each day.
All of the candidates interviewed cited Hoboken Middle School, or Demarest, as a key first priority for upgrades, which have already been prioritized by the state’s Schools Development Authority (SDA), the state agency that grants public funds to build and renovate schools in the state. 31 most needy neighborhoods.
Sokolov, Wiegand, Norwood and Graña also said there was a need for more space for primary school students.
“On a positive note, these are the types of challenges we should be happy to have,” Graña said. “The fact that our schools are popular and growing is great for Hoboken.”
Norwood, Wiegand, and Sokolov suggested asking the SDA for more funding to help fund more expansion-focused work.
“With new council members, we can work diligently with the city to fully assess all available space and needs for a high school,” Wiegand said. “I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and work collaboratively to find creative solutions.”