School Vote Reflects Big Shifts In Hoboken

School Vote Reflects Big Shifts In Hoboken

April 9, 1992 - New York Times

Michael Lenz does not have children yet, but when he does, he said, he wants to send them to public school. In Hoboken, this is novel; the school system has long been considered one of the worst in the state. Parents who can avoid it usually do.

And Mr. Lenz, who works in the financial department of a Woodbridge real-estate firm, could afford to send his children to private school. Instead, he ran for the Board of Education. After getting elected last year to a fill an open seat for one year, he won a three-year term on Tuesday. Moreover, his slate, "Choice for Change," unseated an incumbent with 37 years on the board and won two out of the three seats up for grabs this year.

Mr. Lenz and his allies, who had been on the short end of a 5-to-4 split on the nine-member board, now hold the majority.

School board elections may seem like small-potato politics, but in Hoboken, Tuesday's vote was a sea change. For the first time since young, upwardly mobile professionals discovered the charms of this port city in the 1970's, they control the direction of -- and the money and jobs dispensed by -- one of Hoboken's most powerful bodies. And the election came only a week after a referendum in which voters defeated a waterfront redevelopment plan that had divided the city, with some exceptions, into bitter camps of newcomers and natives.

Mr. Lenz, who moved to Hoboken 10 years ago, conceded that many residents would see the school-board election -- especially after the waterfront referendum -- as a sure sign that the newcomers have taken over this city of 33,400. But he disagrees with that assessment. To him, the election was not so much about newcomers and old-timers but about changing a school system that both groups find woefully inadequate. High Property Taxes

"We asked residents to consider a question like the one Ronald Reagan asked when he was running against Jimmy Carter," Mr. Lenz said. "Our campaign asked, 'Is the school system better off than it was 10, 20 years ago?' "

Hoboken voters, saddled with high property taxes, defeated the district's proposed $39.9 million budget, $22.5 million of which would have come from the taxpayers. The $782,650 capital budget was also defeated. To Mr. Lenz, that was proof that many voters had heard his campaign slogan, "The schools cost too much and do too little."

It would be hard to argue that Hoboken's schools do not need to improve. The system, with 3,250 students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12, spends more per pupil than any other urban district in the state, about $12,000. Faculty salaries are also among the highest, at more than $50,000 for tenured teachers. And the student-teacher ratio, 11 to 1, is lower than the state average. But students' averages on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests are more than 100 points below the state average. Only 69.1 percent of the students passed the state's ninth-grade proficiency test, compared to the state average of 82.1 percent. The high school has no advanced placement classes.

James Farina, a school board member for 18 years and the Hoboken city clerk, said Mr. Lenz appealed successfully to voters tired of high taxes. While Mr. Farina was re-elected, his running mates, Otto Hottendorf, a veteran incumbent, and Migdalia Perez, the only Hispanic candidate this year in a school district in which two-thirds of the students are Hispanic, were defeated. Who Goes to Public Schools?

"We weren't successful in getting our message across," Mr. Farina said. He noted that while the school district had been on a state list of troubled systems, the state, after monitoring Hoboken's progress, was ready to remove it from that category.

And Mr. Farina said the newcomer versus old-timer debate did have an impact on the election. "As far as my election," he said, "people in this town who know me for a long time know I work 365 days a year. But we weren't successful in reaching the newcomers."

Old-timers often charge that many newcomers move away when their children reach school age. But one new school board member, Phyllis Spinelli, has enrolled her son in the pre-kindergarten here, Mr. Lenz said. And Augusta Przygoda, a member of the Coalition for a Better Waterfront, which defeated the development referendum, said she ran for the school board to try to insure that all parents would want to send their children to Hoboken's public schools. She lost to Mr. Farina.

"When the newcomers used to send their children to private school, the old-timers would complain that they were being snobs," said Mrs. Przygoda, who moved here in 1976. "But all the city officials were sending their children to private school as well."

While the waterfront referendum divided Hoboken, Mr. Lenz said he hoped the school board election could serve to heal the rift, even with members split into two factions.

"We're going to eliminate patronage jobs and work to make the schools excellent, so people will want to send their children here," he said. "When you have a newcomer mom and an old-timer mom rubbing elbows at a P.T.A. meeting, it's a little harder to remember the differences."

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