A meeting Monday between Montclair Public Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds and Mayor Sean Spiller, Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings and Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis has been postponed by the district due to confusion over who would attend the meeting. 

The postponement was confirmed by David Cantor, executive director of communications for Montclair Public Schools. Cantor said the district sought clarity after Spiller, who also serves as president of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), included NJEA representatives on an email about the meeting.

The meeting would have been an opportunity for the township and Montclair schools to explore how the township might help find additional funds for the public school budget.

To balance a $5.5 million deficit in the budget, the district cut 31 teaching positions – 22 certificated teachers and nine positions through attrition – along with 34 paraprofessionals employed by the district. The district will also not renew a contract that provided an additional 39 paraprofessionals during the 2022-23 school year.

At the last Township Council meeting on May 16, public comment was dominated by Montclair school district supporters, who in response to school budget cuts, asked the council to find a way to provide additional money for Montclair schools. 

Many speakers urged council members to use funds from payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT), to support the district, as referenced in a Change.org petition, started by Montclair parent Lani Sommer-Padilla on May 14.

Montclair schools, Montclair council and the NJEA

According to emails obtained by Baristanet/Montclair Local, when Spiller reached out on May 26 to set up an initial meeting with Ponds, he copied NJEA deputy executive director Denise Graff Policastro, NJEA field representative Michael Kaminski, and Gregory Yordy, NJEA associate director, research and economic services. He also attached a memo with questions from Montclair’s financial consultant, Robert Benecke of Benecke Economics, as well as a memo with financial questions about Montclair from NJEA’s research division

The Benecke document questions an increase in administrative salaries as well as why an anticipated surplus is not being used. The NJEA document questions the accuracy of salary numbers used in the budgeting process and health care costs in the 2023-24 budget. Neither document explores any municipal funding that might be available to the district.

A May 31 email, sent by Ponds’ executive assistant, Nina DeRosa, to set up a meeting on June 12, was addressed to: Ponds, Spiller, Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings, Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis, Montclair schools business administrator Christina Hunt and Montclair Board of Education President Allison Silverstein.

When Spiller replied to DeRosa to confirm the meeting on June 1, he mentioned that he had hoped for an earlier date, but agreed to meet on June 12 at 2:30 p.m. In his reply, Spiller copied the three NJEA colleagues again, and also added assistant Montclair schools superintendent Kalisha Morgan, acting Montclair Township Manager Brian Scantlebury and Benecke. Spiller did not copy Montclair’s chief financial officer, Padmaja Rao. She is the plaintiff in a whistleblower lawsuit against Montclair Township.

Councilor-at-Large Bob Russo learned of the June 12 meeting and emailed Ponds, with multiple requests to attend. Some residents also emailed Ponds, asking that Russo be included in any meeting.

Chrissie Thomas, a Montclair resident, said in an email to Ponds, Board of Education members, Spiller, Yacobellis, Cummings and Russo: “I understand if you meet with four councilors, it must be open to public, but in light of our ‘weak mayor’ system under the Faulkner Act (and Mr. Spiller’s potential conflict as NJEA president), wouldn’t it make more sense to meet with the at-large councilors (and perhaps Ms. Rao and Mr. Cummings, if they are there as part of the budget committee?) Why should Mr. Spiller be there if he can’t do anything? Certainly, Mr. Russo and Mr. Yacobellis (and the town manager) should be capable of briefing all other councilors.”

When Spiller served as Montclair’s Third Ward councilor, a judge in Essex County Superior Court ruled, in a victory for Montclair Kids First, that Spiller, then a top official of the New Jersey Education Association, must step down from his seat on the Montclair Board of School Estimate, because his position with the NJEA created a conflict of interest.

Communication Breakdown

On Thursday afternoon, June 8, plans for the Monday meeting started falling apart.

Cantor, in an email to Spiller, Yacobellis and Cummings, wrote: “Superintendent Ponds needs to reschedule Monday’s 2:30 pm meeting while we sort out confusion about who was invited and who will be attending. We also want to be respectful to Councilman Russo, who has asked to be part of a meeting. We will be reaching out to suggest possible new dates.”

On Thursday, Cummings wrote back to Cantor, copying Spiller and Yacobellis: “I’m not sure where Mr. Russo came in to play here. Councilor Yacobellis, the mayor and myself have been inquiring and adjusting schedules to make this meeting happen.”

Cummings added: “We can’t have more than three councilors attend the meeting. This is an important meeting and the individuals who need to be there on our team include the three of us and our financial professionals. I don’t know how this got confusing. We have been on emails setting this up.”

Yacobellis also replied Thursday to the email thread: “Our constituents are well represented by my colleagues on this email and me. Mayor and I are both at-large. Councilor Cummings represents the ward with the schools with some of the most acute issues in this situation, including Glenfield. I will talk to Councilor Russo who knows the open public meetings rules. I would ask this not be rescheduled given our very complex calendars.”

Cantor responded: “Peter — OPMA [open public meetings act] rules aren’t the only issue (though Councilman Russo was asking for a meeting at about the same time as this group). A few different versions of who might be attending the meeting have circulated. We’ll straighten this out and reschedule soon.”

Spiller replied to Cantor on Friday, June 9, on the email thread with Yacobellis and Cummings, and referred to the upcoming Township Council meeting on Tuesday, June 13.

Spiller wrote: “I must add emphasis to my colleagues’ previous statements. I have been offering dates, sending questions, and requesting a meeting for weeks at this point. When we are finally given a date and are scheduled, we get a very late cancellation based on the mention of another council person and confusion about who is attending.

“When we address the public on Tuesday, noting the original dates of requests, this cancellation, and a clear lack of urgency, there will be rightful frustration – to say the least.

“We are asking for a meeting on Monday at 2:30 pm. Bring whomever you want and are clear about on your end to discuss and we will worry about whomever else needs to attend.

“This meeting is to get all parties together to get a clear understanding of things and to see what options there are to move forward.”

Cantor replied to Spiller, Cummings and Yacobellis and added Ponds, Hunt and DeRosa to the email thread.

Cantor wrote: “I should reiterate that we very much want to meet. Part of what’s unclear to us is related to the fact that several NJEA officials were copied on your message asking the superintendent for a meeting, along with an NJEA memo questioning the district’s budget decisions.

“Your message said, ‘I would like to set up a meeting with you and your team along with those that have reviewed the budget and have areas of focus.’

“You can understand why this created a lack of clarity as to who would be attending and whose interests would be represented. We look forward to clearing this up soon.”

On Friday evening, Spiller replied, this time adding NJEA’s Policastro, Gordy and Kaminski, Benecke, Scantlebury as well as two new recipients to the email thread — New Jersey Department of Education Acting Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan and Sen. Nia Gill. 

Spiller wrote:

“David, Thank you for sharing your thoughts/questions around the meeting. To be clear, the purpose of the meeting, as intended when I originally reached out, is to get everyone in a room that has a question or possible solution, so we can see if any lead to a way forward or minimally, ensure we are all on the same page with regard to the challenges.

“I don’t view any us vs. them, with regard to town, school, educators, parents, and public.

“We need to be in the same space, seeing if we can get to a place that works for the students of our schools.

“Please be sure to confirm if we are still meeting or if you are choosing not to.”

On Sunday, June 11, Cantor responded to Spiller’s comments:

“You have added several out-of-the-area NJEA officials in response to an email we sent to you and Council Members Yacobellis and Cummings expressing our concern that the meeting is productive. (You also added for the first time the acting state education commissioner and a state legislator.)

“This response makes the nature of the meeting — and therefore its potential to bring meaningful returns to our schools — even less clear to us.

“You mention that your aim ‘is to get everyone in a room that has a question or possible solution,’ which makes it odd that you included NJEA officials but not the two council members in your original request for a meeting.

“And of course there are many others with questions and possible solutions who have not been included.

“We are very interested in a serious discussion with the town about how it might be able to find additional funds to support Montclair’s public schools. We ask for your help in making that discussion happen in the near future.”

On Sunday, Cummings replied to the email thread: “I have been out of town and just saw these communications. I’m surprised by the entire list I see on this chain. I believe this is a local matter at this time.

“I can see both sides of this discussion. I want to be on the record to this body, this meeting is needed to quell down public posturing and allow the two entities (township and school district) to have a discussion. There is a lot of misunderstanding by a vocal group of residents. This is not a ‘gotcha’ request on behalf of the township. It’s to simply have a discussion that can lead to more conversations. We have a responsibility to try and work together. I hope that can begin tomorrow.”

Cummings’ email is the last communication in the thread. Cummings did not respond to a request for comment Sunday.

Yacobellis, when asked to comment on the meeting postponement, said:

“It seems to me the district is put off by his [Spiller’s] approach. This should be a simple meeting with the district’s very capable business administrator, our very capable CFO, our financial adviser, one or two of us from the council, Ponds and one or two Finance Committee School Board members. The town doesn’t care who does the work or who gets the credit. Everyone just wants the adults to come together and help each other out, coming from best intentions all around.”

Yacobellis added: “When it comes to some of my colleagues, I have noticed the motivation can sometimes be photo op over substance. I don’t need any pictures of the meeting or a press conference after.”

When asked for comment on the meeting postponement, Russo said: “I was not invited by colleagues, I only found out through Peter [Yacobellis], who implied he had his own meeting scheduled with the superintendent. We can’t have more than three council members meet at once, so I needed a separate meeting that I was trying to set up with my council colleagues Lori Price Abrams and Robin Schlager. Why should they and I be left out of discussions on the school funding crisis?”

Russo added: “I wanted our CFO to meet with the BOE business administrator and superintendent to work together on this urgent, emergency school finance problem — to avoid the layoff of 30 teachers and dozens of other union support and para staff members!”

Spiller sent this statement to Baristanet/Montclair Local in response to a request for comment:

“I think my emails and urgency around them actually speak for themselves.

“Back in May, I reached out for a meeting with the district and included financial experts from the township (whom have expertise from work in multiple townships) and financial research staff from NJEA who are experts in school budgets (from districts all over the state).

“As every subsequent email from me notes, we are all committed to ensuring all Montclair students have access to the excellent public education they deserve and with the call for help from the district, we should be looking to get as much help as possible in the search for solutions.

“I would hope the district is additionally seeking help from whatever resources they have and I know I will also press our state representatives and even the Department of Education for whatever help they can provide.

“Of course, it is always up to the district if they choose to accept any assistance or even meet, but again delaying a meeting which was originally requested weeks ago is certainly frustrating.”

When asked why district officials had not sought clarity from Spiller and the other two councilors before Thursday, Cantor said they had hoped to come to a clear resolution internally, but could not rely on the mayor to make the nature of the meeting clearer. He added that Spiller “doubled down on the lack of clarity” by adding more people to the email for the meeting.

Regarding questions about the Montclair schools budget, Cantor stated that the district submitted a balanced budget and the county and state accepted it.

“The question has been whether there are municipal monies — now or in future — that might be available to the school district. That is our understanding of what the meeting would be about,” Cantor said. “We believed the intention was to have a serious meeting to find out if there are funds to bring back teachers, not a political showcase.”

For a Montclair Township Council that has been plagued by conflict and controversy — both at council meetings and in the courtroom, this latest inability to get a meeting off the ground will not help when residents show up for public comment Tuesday.

— Liz George, Baristanet