By CARMEL LOUGHMAN
Special to Montclair Local
There will be a referendum on the November ballot to change the way Montclair Board of Education members are selected. Currently, the mayor has sole discretion to appoint its seven members. If the ballot passes, the board will have nine members elected by Montclair voters. Terms will be staggered, with a vote for three members each November.
Five times over the last couple of decades, Montclair voters defeated similar referenda. The trigger for these referenda was usually a divisive issue like charter schools, busing, the magnet school system, property tax increases, etc. Driving this effort today is the sense that no man can serve two masters.
As mayor, Sean Spiller has an obligation to Montclair taxpayers and students; as president of the New Jersey Education Association, Mr. Spiller must fight for the salary, benefits and working conditions of teachers. Citizens are worried that these two objectives may clash. By 2022, all members of the school board will have been appointed by Mr. Spiller.
The troubling question is whether Mr. Spiller will appoint strong, independent volunteers who will work only for the benefit of students, or whether he will appoint persons who are aligned with the teachers union, perhaps to the detriment of students.
Since it was confirmed that the referendum will be on the November ballot, a study group of the League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area has been exploring this conflict issue and other ramifications of a change from an appointed to an elected board of education.
With respect to this conflict, the League of Women Voters proposes the following solution:
- Deputy mayor: Invest the deputy mayor with the sole authority both to oversee the appointment process and to select Montclair Board of Education appointees.
- Advisory panel: Establish an advisory panel of seven citizens and the two at-large Township Council members to recommend appointments to the deputy mayor. This advisory panel would vet potential board members based on a rigorous preset process.
- Job description: Encourage people to volunteer for seats on the board by disseminating information on the expectations of the job and how to apply. Spread through information on social media, in digital and print news outlets, through school PTAs and through community organizations.
- Township Council: Each member of the council could nominate a potential board member.
- Current Montclair Board of Education members: Board candidates should talk to current members and those going off the board.
The League’s study group also conducted two surveys to learn the thoughts of former Montclair Board of Education members and past mayors on relevant questions. We surveyed 26 former board members; 19 responded. You can visit our website at lwvmontclairarea.org to read their responses to these questions:
- Do you remember the composition of your board re: wards, race, skills, etc.?
- Would you have run for election? Why or why not?
- Do you think appointed members are as responsive to public requests as elected ones? Can you give an example of your board’s response to public comment?
- During your tenure, did the Montclair Education Association have direct or indirect power or influence over the Montclair Board of Education’s actions or school budget?
- What influence did the mayor have over your board, regarding policy or budget? Did the mayor make any request upon appointing you?
- Any additional comments on achievement gaps, transparency or superintendent turnover are welcome.
And four past mayors responded to these questions:
- How did you select Montclair Board of Education members?
- What do you think are important qualities and experience for a Board of Education member to possess?
- Did you consult Township Council members, Board of Education members, the teachers union and/or other advisers before making your decision?
- Did you seek to balance the Board of Education with respect to race, ward and professional experience and expertise?
- What contact did you have with the Board of Education during your administration?
- In retrospect, would you have done anything different in your selection process?
The League study group looked at many issues around appointed versus elected school boards, such as how the transition from an appointed to an elected board would work, how the budget process would change; what it costs to run for a board; who funds board of education elections, whether the type of board affects student outcomes; whether voters turn out for board elections, etc. We will post a “Frequently Asked Questions” section on our website to help educate voters on these issues.
Voters need to have a full understanding of the issues as they consider this referendum. The nonpartisan League of Women Voters aims to provide context and facts to assist voters struggling with this vital vote.
Carmel Loughman is treasurer of the Montclair League of Women Voters and submitted the above piece on the organization’s behalf.
An earlier version of this post misspelled Loughman’s name on its byline.
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