Vote Montclair, a group that aims to increase voter turnout and participation, hopes to put the subject of an elected school board back before township voters in the near future. 

Montclair is one of only 11 Type I school districts in New Jersey, in which the board is appointed rather than elected. Since the 1960s, five attempts to change Montclair to an elected board have failed. 

Erik D’Amato, Vote Montclair’s founder and the parent of Hillside and Glenfield students, said that ultimately, the discussion of an elected school board is about getting more Montclair voters involved in the democratic process, rather than in school-specific topics. 

“Being allowed a vote is a real thing,” D’Amato said. 

This summer, Vote Montclair conducted a survey asking residents what they thought of an elected school board. Of the 333 respondents, 77 percent said they liked the idea of an elected school board, 13 percent were undecided, and 9 percent said they wanted to retain an appointed board, D’Amato said. 

The push for an elected board is one of Vote Montclair’s three main issues. The other two are shifting the municipal elections to November and increasing voter participation in general. 

While Montclair residents pride themselves on being politically active, municipal elections typically see low voter turnout, D’Amato said. 

Elected vs. appointed

For a district to change status from appointed to elected or vice-versa, one of two things would need to happen: The district would have to pass a resolution to put the question to voters, or a petition supported by 15 percent of the district’s voters would have to be submitted to get the question on the ballot. The proposed change would then have to be approved by the voters. 

In 2009, a referendum question on changing to an elected school board failed. It was the fifth time in 46 years that such a question had been put to voters. At the time of the referendum, Montclair was one of 20 Type I districts in New Jersey whose school board members were appointed.

Carmel Loughman, a member of the Montclair League of Women Voters as well as of the township Planning Board, said the League conducted two surveys, in 1995 and 2009, with the results leading the League to conclude it would be in the township’s best interest to continue with an appointed board. 

Opponents of an elected board have questioned whether an elected board would necessarily be more representative of Montclair as a community, or more efficient to run, than an appointed board. Opponents have also cited concerns that an elected board would lead to special-interest candidates such as charter-school proponents or magnet-system opponents running for office. 

Loughman also cited the expense of holding a school board election, up to $50,000, as another reason for an appointed board.

D’Amato has suggested a model in which each of Montclair’s four wards would have at least one member on the board, with additional members elected at-large to keep membership at an odd number. However, he said, in speaking to lawyers and the New Jersey School Boards Association, he learned that this sort of model has not yet been used in New Jersey. 

A second Vote Montclair survey, which is ongoing, is asking voters if the question should go to referendum this year or next. As of Monday, of the 100 respondents, 75 percent said they wanted the referendum this year, D’Amato said.

Regardless of how people feel, he said, they should make their opinions heard. “They shouldn’t be shy about it either way,” he said.