By TALIA WIENER
In a historic election Tuesday for two newly created seats on the Montclair Board of Education, Phaedra Dunn and Melanie Deysher outdistanced seven other candidates to win the terms.
It was an election marked by high interest — with nine candidates seeking the seats and voters picking board members directly for the first time in Montclair’s history — but low turnout. As of 10:40 p.m. Tuesday, county officials were reporting 4,217 ballots cast in a township with 35,011 registered voters, from 34 of Montclair’s 35 voting districts — a turnout around 12%.
(Census figures estimate fewer than 31,000 people of voting age in Montclair as of 2020. County Clerk Christopher Durkin told Montclair Local voters are only removed from rolls when the county is notified of a voter’s death, or when election mail to a voter is returned as undeliverable and then that person doesn’t participate in the next two federal elections.)
Those are unofficial results, and even the last results available Tuesday night did not include provisional ballots or mail-ins that hadn’t been received by Election Day. Voters could postmark mail-ins by Tuesday or put them in a dropbox as late as 8 p.m. to ultimately be counted in the final results.
Deysher (with 1,681 votes as of 10:40 p.m. on Tuesday) and Dunn (with 1,948 votes) were backed by Vote Montclair, the group that successfully petitioned last year to put a question on the November ballot asking if the township should continue as a Type I school district with a seven-member, mayor-appointed school board, or become a Type II district, with a nine-member, elected board. Tuesday’s election filled the two seats created when Montclair voters overwhelmingly backed the latter option.
Dunn, watching results come in that appeared to show her with a commanding lead around 10 p.m. Tuesday, said she didn’t want to celebrate prematurely. At that point, only about 50% of Montclair districts had reported results.
But “it’s good to see that more people than I thought went out to vote for this,” she said.
And with her win secured, she said later that night it’s time to get to work.
“We’ve got 18 months to try to make as big of an impact as we can and do things that are just great for our district, for our students, teachers, everyone,” she said.
Montclair Local was unable to reach Deysher after enough votes came in to call the race Tuesday night.
Dunn and Deysher will each serve a term of one year and nine months before their seats will join a cycle in which three board members will be elected every November. Their seats will be up for election in November of 2023 along with the one currently held by Allison Silverstein; the next terms for those seats would start in January 2024.
The question of turnout had been a key one in the debate over whether Montclair should have an elected or appointed board. Some opponents of the elected system argued there wouldn’t be enough interested, qualified candidates to run, or that not enough voters would turn out to ensure a truly representative system for selecting candidates.
The turnout numbers aren’t atypical for a school board race in New Jersey; they’re notoriously marked by low voter participation compared to races for municipal, state or federal office. But Montclair saw a crowded field of candidates, with voters parsing brief answers in forums where each candidate, as a practical matter, had limited time to speak, or Q&As from Montclair Local and the district’s PTA Council that went for several thousand words each.
Dunn is a licensed therapist and co-founder of Montclair Moms of Color, a group that describes its goal as to “provide an inclusive, common and comfortable support system,” and to give a voice to those who often feel unheard.
Deysher is an occupational therapist, known to many parents for her advocacy for students with dyslexia. Both — much like the third-place finisher, Yvonne Bouknight, an educator (with 1,198 votes as of Tuesday night) — had said they wanted to focus on addressing the achievement gap in Montclair schools, and equity for all students.
They also stressed a particular need for equitable treatment of special education students, after an audit last year found racial disparities in how often children are classified as needing services, problems with communication and uneven experiences across the district’s schools.
Dunn has told Montclair Local that to hold itself to high standards, the board must constantly review its services, ensure consistency across schools and reflect the voices of teachers, students, parents and administrators.
Deysher has said making opportunities for educational excellence available to all students means focusing on strong instruction in math, reading and writing in early grades.
“This is when kids form their self-image as someone who can learn, who can succeed and who likes coming to school,” she told Montclair Local for its Q&A. She said teachers must also be given the resources they need to succeed.
The other candidates in the race were Holly Shaw (with 916 votes as of Tuesday night), Jerold Freier (661 votes), Lauren Quinn Griffin (645 votes), Jennette Williams (495 votes), George C. Simpson (297 votes) and Noah Gale (255).
The turnout lagged significantly behind November’s referendum on whether the township should have an elected or appointed board, when 14,904, or 42.71% of registered voters, took part. More than 3,400 people voted with mail-in ballots in that race.
A screenshot of results sent to Montclair Local by County Clerk Christopher Durkin late Tuesday didn’t make clear how many of the 5,745 ballots mailed to Montclair voters had yet been returned and counted (it did show, however, that county-wide, Essex had tabulated 1,172 mail-in votes votes between the Montclair race and a bond proposal in Essex Fells). The county’s own voting results website hadn’t been updated to reflect mail-in votes by early Wednesday morning. But midday Tuesday, Board of Elections Clerk Linda Von Nessi, said the county had received 948 mail-in votes at that point.
Councilman Bob Russo, an adjunct political science professor at Montclair State University, told Montclair Local he observed a low turnout Tuesday at his polling location, Edgemont School. Poll workers described single-digit turnouts to Montclair Local at some polling sites late Tuesday morning.
“It seems all the enthusiasm for changing to an elected BOE last November, during a governor and legislature election, has not translated into a similar interest, once nine names were on the ballot,” Russo said.
Sample ballots for voters in 11 voting districts listed incorrect poll locations. Linda von Nessi, clerk of the Essex County Board of Elections, told Montclair Local it appears information was pulled from the wrong module in a statewide voter registration system, listing old polling locations for addresses.
“As soon as we became aware of this error, postcards were sent by first-class mail advising the voters of the [correct] location to cast their ballot,” she said by email.
Signs were also posted on the doors of incorrectly listed sites, directing voters to new locations.
In the November referendum, voters put aside the municipality’s long-held practice of mayoral appointments in favor of the process seen in 97% of New Jersey school districts.
The November referendum question passed with more than 70% of the vote. Voters backed an elected board in all 35 voting districts, across Montclair’s four wards.
The conversion to a Type II district also did away with Montclair’s separate Board of School Estimate, which had the responsibility of approving school budgets and fixing costs for capital expenses before they would be sent to the Township Council for bonding.
As a Type II district, the school system’s budgets will generally be approved by the school board itself. If they exceed a 2% cap on year-to-year property tax levy growth, they’ll go to voters for approval. Capital improvement bonds will go before the public as well, either in regularly scheduled or special elections. The board is working on a bond referendum measure that would include $15.5 million for heating, ventilation and air conditioning upgrades across the school district and possibly more.
On Nov. 8, Montclair will elect candidates to fill the three board seats currently held by board President Latifah Jannah, Vice President Priscilla Church and Monk Inyang. Inyang was chosen by the board in January to fill the seat of the late Dr. Alfred Davis Jr., who died Dec. 12 at the age of 65. The terms for those seats will begin in January 2023. The deadline to file petitions for the Nov. 8 election is July 25.
The seats now held by board members Kathryn Weller-Demming, Crystal Hopkins and Eric Scherzer, all appointed by Mayor Sean Spiller in 2021, will go before voters in November 2024, and the next terms for those seats will begin in January 2025.
This story has been updated to correct the number of ballots cast, as of results available late Tuesday night. An earlier version incorrectly listed the number of ballots cast county-wide (in the Montclair race, as well as in a separate one in Essex Fells) as those cast in Montclair.