Zany Board of Education meeting
Active Hoboken resident Maureen Sullivan graciously provided today’s wacky Board of Education meeting recap! Thanks, Maureen!
An unlikely hero steps up for the taxpayers!
The police had to be called to Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting after the board unexpectedly voted down the teachers’ contract and a crowd of about 100 district employees were whipped into a frenzy by the union president.
The unlikely triggerman was newcomer Phil DeFalco, who was elected in April. DeFalco, a CPA with an office on Washington Street, sat on the negotiating committee with fellow travelers Pupie Raia, Carmelo Garcia and Anthony Romano. Those three, along with board president Frances Rhodes-Kearns, voted for the three-year contract for the Hoboken Education Association, but DeFalco gave it the thumbs down. He told the crowd that he had wanted to vote yes, but that Gary Enrico, full-time union organizer and negotiator and part-time band leader at the high school, had gone back on their handshake agreement and fiddled with the numbers.
And the crowd went berserk!
After the 4-4 vote (Kids First also voted no and Jimmy Farina abstained because his wife works in the district), Enrico rushed to the podium and grabbed the microphone to berate the board for not taking care of his union members. In addition to the 225 teachers, he also negotiates for the myriad clerks and transportation workers. “Some of these people are on food stamps,” he ranted. “Their kids get free lunches at school.” Rhodes-Kearns never used the gavel even when the room erupted in a frenzy of screams, foul language and threats against those who voted no. “Just wait till election time,” one clerk yelled at Kids First leader Theresa Minutillo, whose term expires in April.
But the crowd saved its most vile invective for DeFalco. “We got you elected,” one woman screamed. “We won’t forget.”
Indeed, Enrico deployed his union members throughout the city on election day (full disclosure: I ran unsuccessfully as an independent candidate for the board. My daughter is a student at Connors.) Teachers, including those such as Enrico who don’t live in town, handed out brochures urging voters to support the $56 million budget. Teachers were urged to attend a fundraiser for the team of DeFalco, Garcia and Rhodes-Kearns held at East LA and many did. (I was once in a classroom volunteering when Enrico walked in and told the teacher, who was in the middle of a lesson, to vote yes on the budget.)
The contract — which makes up about 70% of the school budget — expired on June 30, but negotiations were held up in part because of an investigation into ethical violations when it was discovered that the union’s offices were located in a building on Seventh Street owned in part by Raia. And DeFalco, for his part, is the accountant for several members of the union. The state, however, decided these were not conflicts of interest.
So what’s in this contract anyway that’s got everyone wound so tightly? No one is saying publicly. After the melee, I implored the board members to tell us, the taxpayers who are footing the bill, what the deal is. What’s the percentage increase? Why are we giving out huge increases when our city is in a financial hole and the entire country is reeling from an economic meltdown? What’s this we hear that they might be increasing the length of the school day? Any chance that the union members will have to contribute a penny towards their health care costs?
But thanks to the state legislature, the “memorandum of agreement” signed by both sides is not public information until the board approves it and the members ratify it. The numbers leaking out, however, indicate that the board will indeed pay back Enrico and the union for their support. Reports are that the teachers may get 5.7% cost-of-living raises in each of the next three years and that clerks could get well over 10% a year. The median salary for teachers in Hoboken last year was already $81,682, compared with $53,003 for the state as a whole. (Inflation is forecast at 3.5% to 4% for the next year. Statewide, 210 districts have to settle contracts this year and so far the average increase is 4.57% with numerous “cost-containment provisions,” according to the NJ School Boards Association.)
They may extend the school day by up to an extra half an hour, but there is no indication whether that means more “instructional time” or just more “student contact time.” And there’s a hint that they may have to pay a little more for prescription co-pays, but the gold-plated health, vision and dental coverage–for which they pay no co-pay and no monthly premium–will be left unchanged. During the budget hearings earlier this year, Superintendent Jack Raslowsky said health-care costs were projected to increase 23% and there was nothing we could do about it. (Nationally, health care costs were projected to rise just 4%, in line with inflation.)
Enrico wasn’t there to hear the questions. After the explosion, he ordered all of the union members to leave the meeting room and head to the nearby Wallace School cafeteria. But first he took the time to cite a poster hanging on the wall with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “In the end,” he read, “we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Many in town are hailing DeFalco as a profile in courage, an unlikely hero who stepped up when his conscience called for it. Is it possible that after six months on the board he has seen enough of the corruption and waste that has long plagued the schools and will now become an advocate of reform? So why did he split with his team?
During the negotiations, the board negotiators tell the union that they can give them, say 10%. It’s then up to Enrico and his team to divvy it up among the various units at varying percentages over each of the three years of the life of the contract. Apparently, when DeFalco added up all the numbers, it came out to more than the amount they had been given and he balked. That means Carmelo Garcia, Pupie Raia and Frances Rhodes-Kearns knew that the accountant on their team thought the numbers were funky but then voted yes anyway. Instead of tabling the contract and trying again at the next meeting in two weeks, they decided to ram it through. For his part during the meeting, an obviously distraught DeFalco said Enrico was being dishonest in how the numbers were reworked.
The next school board meeting is Tuesday, October 14, at 7 p.m. in the board meeting room at 1115 Clinton St. But with a large crowd expected, it could be moved to the Wallace gym. No doubt Enrico will rally his troops once again. I suggest that anyone who wants a say in how our tax money is spent should attend. Bring your pitchfork!“
THANKS, MAUREEN FOR THE RECAP!!