The Hoboken school board refused in a meeting Tuesday night to overturn the superintendent’s decision to withhold tenure for popular Hoboken High School theater director Paula Ohaus and gifted program instructor Cheng Yen Hillenbrand.
In a seven-hour meeting, community members urged the board to overturn the recommendation of Superintendent Mark Toback.
The vocal crowd was mostly disappointed when five of the nine board members – often referred to as the “Kids First” majority – supported Toback’s decision.
The school board, like the City Council, is politically divided. The five members of the Kids First team are allied with Mayor Dawn Zimmer.
Of the other four members, three recently won election under the ticket “Independents for Education,” beating three members of a Kids First slate.
Usually, school personnel matters are handled privately. However, teachers are offered the opportunity to waive their rights and publicly discuss their employment, and they are then awarded a “Donaldson hearing” in which they have an opportunity to ask the board for a vote on whether or not they should be kept there.
“We are a very small town and we have two jewels that have a profound impact.” – Rosemary Arosco
Ohaus pleads her case
Ohaus has directed plays for the last 14 years in the district, and recently began teaching as well.
In early April, Ohaus met with Toback and a union representative. Toback questioned the popular teacher about driving students in her personal car, and allowing students to sleep over at her home. The meeting came days after the musical “Hairspray” was performed by high school students to positive reviews from the community.
Ohaus helped revive the theater program at the high school years ago. Her students have won statewide awards for their performances.
After the meeting with Toback, Ohaus resigned from her position, blaming what she said was ongoing harassment starting with the previous superintendent. Then Ohaus rescinded her resignation just before a board meeting in April in which community members vocally supported her.
After that, Toback informed Ohaus that she would not be offered tenure, which revived the debate.
After teaching in Hoboken for three years, teachers are supposed to be either offered tenure or released.
“There is no taking back tenure,” Toback said after the meeting. “It’s a very serious decision. Tenure needs to be something that is always protected.”
Ironically, the room where Ohaus begged the board for her job on Tuesday was lined with posters and awards honoring her work. Ohaus pointed out that she never received a bad evaluation for her work in the district.
“Four times we’ve been nominated for the best musical in the state at the Rising Star Awards,” Ohaus said. “These are not small accomplishments. Who will lead a program like this? Who are you going to replace me with?”
Ohaus said she would not have driven students to colleges for visits, or let them stay at her home, if she was asked to stop by a supervisor. Ohaus has said many times that she always had parents’ permission when students came over, and parents sometimes came along for barbeques at the end of the production of a play.
Dispute over certification
Toback said that Hillenbrand was declined tenure based on, among other issues, certification problems.
“No way in written or oral form was I told to get certification,” Hillenbrand said during Tuesday’s meeting.
Toback said after the meeting that teachers like Hillenbrand who direct a “gifted and talented” program are required to have certification to teach kindergarten through eighth grade. However, Hillenbrand had certification to teach only kindergarten through fifth grade.
“The program we’re running doesn’t comply with the state requirements,” Toback said after the meeting. “We want a school district that complies with state law for the ‘Gifted and Talented’ program. We want to make sure the people teaching the program are in fact properly certified.”
Board member Carmelo Garcia asked all the students in attendance to stand during the final vote, in a plea to his colleagues to look out at all the people that Hillenbrand and Ohaus had affected in the district.
“Let’s vote, and let’s unite,” Garcia said.
Board member Leon Gold was annoyed with Garcia’s request.
“You’re being used and you should feel bad about yourself,” Gold said to the crowd.
After almost five hours of Donaldson hearing testimony from members of the community, the board voted 5-4 to not offer tenure.
“I have to support the superintendent and the decision he’s making,” said Ruth McAllister, a Kids First board member. “He has to make decisions about who he’s going to work with.”
But board member Maureen Sullivan said after the vote that it was “a bad, black day in Hoboken’s history.”
Other board members who voted to not retain the teachers said they did not wish to undermine the decision of their superintendent.
Public sounds off
Before the vote, Ken Howitt, a parent in the district, spoke about the personal impact that Ohaus had on his family and the city at large.
“I’m just trying to point out that what happens in a program like the theater arts program is integral to community building,” Howitt said. “We all try to help each other. It’s been a tough three or four years, but this program has built this town as a family.”
Marleny Alonzo, a colleague of Ohaus, spoke at the meeting in support of the embattled theater director, fighting back tears.
“These kids have excelled so much [with Ohaus],” Alonzo said. “They need stuff like this. Some of these kids have no other outlet...we need more community programs like this. We need Paula Ohaus and Cheng Yen Hillenbrand.”
Jean Marie Mitchell, a former Kids First board member, said she would love for Ohaus to stay on as a director.
Toback offered Ohaus a position directing the plays, but she would not be a teacher working toward tenure. Ohaus did not accept.
Maurice Fitzgibbons, a former freeholder often involved in Hoboken politics and a member of the New Jersey State Council of the Arts, later said the children of Hoboken will suffer the most. “Her reputation as a theater teacher is one of the best in the state,” he said on Wednesday.
Rosemary Arosco, a long time resident, spoke in support of Ohaus and Hillenbrand.
“We are a very small town and we have two jewels that have a profound impact,” Arosco said.
She spoke about the times when the stage was dark, with no theater program, before Ohaus.
“What I’d like you to do is not go back into the darkness, but stay in the light,” she said.
The district will move forward to hire a new theater director, and the position to lead the “Gifted and Talented” program has been advertised, Toback said after the meeting.
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com
Solar panels coming to Hoboken
The Board of Education voted to authorize the building of new solar panels on Wallace School, Hoboken High School, and Demarest School at their Tuesday night meeting.
Toback said after the meeting that the panels will provide approximately 30 to 40 percent of the district’s energy, and will help work toward the goal of making the district greener.
The panels will be paid for by the district, and they should be installed by the end of the 2011-2012 academic school year. The board has to seek bids on the panels before construction can begin.