By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Mayor Sean Spiller — also the No. 2 leader of the state’s largest teachers union — won’t be serving on the body that reviews and approves Montclair’s public schools budget every year.
Spiller has followed through with a commitment he made last year to appoint a designee to the Board of School Estimate. Under Montclair’s form of government, that seat is usually reserved for the mayor himself. The mayor is also responsible for appointing Board of Education members, who aren’t elected by the public as they are in many communities.
During the township election last year, some community members raised concerns stating Spiller’s role as vice president of the New Jersey Education Association presented a conflict with the role he would have had on the Board of School Estimate.
On Dec. 15, the Township Council approved the appointment of Deputy Mayor William Hurlock to the Board of School Estimate in the mayor’s place. The other two appointees approved by the council are Councilwomen Robin Schlager and Lori Price Abrams.
The terms will run Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, 2021.
The deputy mayor’s appointment is made possible by a New Jersey statute that requires in a Type I District, like Montclair, that the Board of School Estimate include two members of the Board of Education, two members of the township’s governing body “and the mayor or other chief executive officer of the municipality, or if there be no chief executive officer then an additional member appointed by the governing body.”
Spiller has served as vice president of the NJEA since Sept. 1, 2017, and previously served as secretary since 2013. He has been a member of the Township Council since 2012.
According to the NJEA, its mission is to advance and protect the rights, benefits and interests of union members, and promote a quality system of public education for all students.
Spiller said he still intends to “fulfill my duties” and appoint “independent Board of Education members who share the goal of providing the best possible education for our students at the very best value to taxpayers.”
According to his profile on the NJEA website, Spiller’s past roles in the group have included serving as chair of the Congressional Contact Committee, as a member of the Urban Education Committee and as an ethnic-minority-at-large representative to the Delegate Assembly. He was also a member of the National Council of Urban Education Associations.
He served as an executive board member of the Passaic County Education Association from 2005 through 2013, as president from 2007 through 2013, and as a negotiations team member of the Wayne Education Association.
The election wasn’t the first time that Spiller’s position with NJEA and his work as an elected official have been questioned as possible conflicts. After being elected as a councilman in 2012, Spiller was appointed as one of the two council members to sit on the Board of School Estimate.
In 2015, Montclair Kids First — composed of township residents and led by residents Jonathan Bonesteel, Matthew Frankel and Sam Cole — successfully filed suit, seeking to have him removed from the Board of School Estimate, believing Spiller to have a conflict between his roles on the board and in the NJEA. (Matthew Frankel is president of Montclair Local’s board of directors. Frankel was not involved in the reporting or editing of this story.)
Spiller’s lawyer argued then that he was not a member of the NJEA bargaining unit, and was not an employee of the Montclair school system.
Although his “affiliation with the NJEA is affiliated with the union, it is a separate organization,” he said at the time.
Under state law, the district’s Board of Education approves collective bargaining agreements with teachers, determines staffing and makes spending policy decisions for Montclair schools. The Board of School Estimate determines the tax levy to fund the budget.
In 2016, Superior Court Judge Thomas Moore ruled Spiller should be removed from the Board of School Estimate, saying that serving with both it and the NJEA violated common-law conflict of interest and Montclair’s ethics code.
At the time, Spiller’s response to the judge’s order was: “From its outset, this litigation initiated by [Montclair Kids First] has been straight out of the right-wing playbook used nationally to vilify teachers and attack public education.”
Before the elections in May, Bonesteel said: “Baloney, it was not a personal attack, but a legitimate concern, as the judge confirmed.”