Montclair, NJ – A meeting Monday between Montclair Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Ponds and Montclair 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 attendees called for Council members to use funds from payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT), to support the district, as referenced in a petition, started by Montclair parent Lani Sommer-Padilla on May 14.

Students protest budget cuts in front of the Montclair Board of Education office on Thursday. (KATE ALBRIGHT/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)

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 & 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 budgeting process and health care costs in the 2023-2024 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 BOE president Alison Silverstein.

When Spiller replied to DeRosa to confirm the meeting on June 1, he mentions he had hoped for an earlier date, but agrees to meeting on the 12th at 2:30 p.m. In his reply, Spiller copies the three NJEA colleagues again, and also adds assistant Montclair Schools superintendent Kalisha Morgan, acting Montclair town manager Brian Scantlebury and consultant Robert Benecke. Spiller does not copy Montclair’s chief financial officer Padmaja Rao; Rao is the plaintiff in a whistleblower case against the Township of Montclair.

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, in an email to Ponds, BOE members, Spiller, Yacobellis, Cummings and Russo,  stated: “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 Mayor Sean 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.”

“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,” said Cummings.

Yacobellis also replies 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,” Spiller wrote.

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 Senator 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 replies 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 a 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 advisor, 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.”

“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,” Yacobellis added.

Russo, when asked for comment on the meeting postponement, 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,” said Russo. “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 lay-off 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 the district did not seek clarity from Spiller and the other two councilors before Thursday, Cantor said they hoped to come to a clear resolution internally, but could not rely on the mayor to make the nature of the meeting clearer, adding 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,” said Cantor. “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.

29 replies on “Plan for Superintendent, Council Members Budget Meeting Falls Apart”

  1. I keep saying the Town needs to conduct a search for a new CFO.
    And don’t hold your breath that Nancy Erika Smith will make an issue out of this.

  2. Frank, I love you, but you’ve moved back to the Land of Non-Sequitur.

    Rtaydole, Are you rooming with Frank?

    True to form, Spiller is the culprit here. How is the Township CFO not included in this critical meeting about Township finances? How many times does Spiller have to show how he REALLY feels about the CFO! He’s equally culpable as Stafford.

    Once again, Spiller is showing his true loyalties. I rarely, if ever, agree with Yacobellis and Cantor, but they’re spot-on this time.
    Btw, the Township reps should be determined by Council vote not by a Spiller, Yacobelis, Cummings fiat.

  3. LOL. The one guy that actually got the meeting is the culprit?

    You can certainly say that there is invite sprawl, or that the meeting should have been framed a different way, but he recognized the urgency, and got it on the books before the next council meeting.

    Ponds/Cantor cancelled (instead of saying ‘hey, please don’t include the NJEA/state politicians, let’s settle it at the town level) over stuff that could have been handled with one phone call.

    Russo was apparently trying to do his own thing, which is fine (looks like everyone wants that veil of secrecy re: 3 versus 4 members)

    Concerned citizens were throwing chafe into the process by dismissing Spiller.

  4. Agree with rtadoyle that the main problem here is that no one picked up their phone. This kind of thing is solved in a 5 minute phone call. It’s ridiculous that a meeting of this nature in a relatively small town is organized like an international summit of egomaniacs.

  5. Rtadoyle, You are having way too much fun and getting way too much entertainment value for free. It’s like you are using Montclair’s Netflix password.

  6. Actions like the Council showed and posts here show that we just don’t fundamentally understand our form of government. It is truly scary the level of ignorance.

    The Council can decide which members can/should attend any Township mtg with the MPSD. But, the Township runs the show. The Councilors are guests at the meeting. As to the process, their presence is unnecessary.
    That’s because we are under a Faulkner form of governance and, what for it, Scriberman is correct the Mayor is conflicted. As the courts already have ruled.

    I keep trying to lay the bread crumbs to follow Benecke Economics, but I guess readers are not hungry enough to follow. Maybe now they will. FYI, It is the Manager’s Budget. And…BE reports to Brian Scantlebury, not to any Council member. Go back and look where BE is and the CFO isn’t. It is not that hard if you set aside your biases.

    Lastly, the good that comes out of the two outside memos on the MPSD is almost worth it. It is not that the points the memos make ar original because they have been said. Their worth is that two outsiders with financial expertise just lambasted what the MPSD put together. I am not saying the MPS was totally wrong unless they hire back those teaches and assistants. But, they made sure the process was opaque & condensed and the parents are just too self-interested to be useful. They are just interested in taking.

    @Scriberman: Smith should not make a big issue of this unexpected gift the Council has given her client. She should make an oblique note to the judge, and then embrace her good fortune we are the defendants and Riker is our counsel.

  7. Flipside: I’m anticipating all of this to wind up with certain people’s asking GR to pay for the lost revenue by rerouting existing pilot funds, tax increases – which isn’t how any of this works. So I’m appreciating the public spats! (And honestly… Some people are getting high on their own supply 🙂 ) also, knowledge is power.

    Some people like watching the Real Housewives of NY – I like watching the Real Councilors of Montclair.

  8. Rta, The whole GR is a bad neighbor narrative is beyond silly. The GR council did their job and Montclair’s botched theirs. Montclair has to put on their big boy’s pants and take their lumps. I was out of town so I missed the festival Saturday. Heard it was well attended and I am sure cost the town a bit of money. Montclair has its priorities. Why bother what responsible stuff when you can party!

  9. flipside,

    I am wearing the royal blue Montclair Communist t-shirt as I watch CNN from the People’s Republic of Montclair. It was not intentional; it was on top of the pile. FWIW, we bought the red colorway and sent it to a relative in Florida.

  10. Some interesting attempts above at political analysis. However, it seems that a number of you are making this just too complex given the characters at hand. I think it’s actually pretty simple.

    As a wanting political science student many years ago, one of my college assignments was to come up with a theory to explain political behaviors seen. I got an A+ for this one.

    P.E.B. — Power, Ego & Bullshit

    And it’s corollary application: Who knows who, who owes who…and who ______ who.

    Applying this kind of overlay to the events at hand, should produce much more clarity than trying to figure out all the detailed nuances of why this one imploded.

  11. Martin,
    It should be ‘whom’. 😉

    I missed the festival too as I was at a family bbq – believe it or not, my parents + their neighbors/friends talked about this stuff. Spelller is not doing well with this crowd. Neither does Yacobellis. They are both perceived as fake.

    My own friends have little idea about all of it. It’s kinda interesting how young people have mostly zero familiarity with local government. The only reason I do is because my parents bring it up at dinner table every so often.

  12. Frank,
    When you meet a benevolent communist let me know. You know the old communist saying, “I would rather have no cow than see my neighbor have two.”

  13. So we’ve gotten to the point where the Montclair Town Government s so dysfunctional that we can’t even schedule and hold a meeting? Allrighty.

  14. Martin,
    Was the lawsuit really dismissed? If so, congratulations! I hope you’re getting attorney fees. This lawsuit was unbelievably improper!

  15. Spiller’s unbridled distaste for our CFO drives him to ridiculous/stupid tactics like not including her in meetings that are inextricably connected to her job responsibilities.

    Acting Manager Scantlebury and new HR Director Dawkins are nest on Spiller’s hit list. They’ll be in the crosshairs tonight when the Council votes to replace them with GSG. Spiller led the charge to unfairly promote white firefighters so why not push two more black professionals out for a white firm? Consistency is the byword!

    Finally, if you think moving Lackawanna and BOE funding to July is happenstance, I have a bridge for you. Strategy: let’s move on the got topics to summer when no one is around AND let’s limit attendance ant the June meeting when we skewer two more minority employees. Subtle as a train wreck.

  16. Why are the Mayor and council so tone deaf? Our schools are letting go of teachers due to lack of funding. What does the council do? Continuous run-away spending on hiring more attorneys! If this new law firm, DeCotiis Fitzpatrick, is to replace the two current incompetent town attorneys and the one from Riker Danzig (who sorely under-delivered in courts) why don’t I see resolutions terminating them?
    I am also curious what this GSG resolution is for? Why are we hiring these consultants again? To search for a new Manager? It is to get rid of Mr. Scantlebury who stepped up to the plate under extra-ordinary circumstances, gracefully conducted himself in public, and quietly completed many tasks that were longtime pending?

    Stafford was the most incompetent manager of all time and yet Council fought hard to keep him as long as it could. Why in the world are they harassing Scantlebury!

    Is this new consulting firm (GSG) going to be in charge of Personnel? If so, it would mean that the Council has already determined that the new black HR Director hired by Scantlebury is not competent enough. Great! Black Acting Manager and black HR Director are to be replaced by the consulting firm owned and operated by the old white manager? Just saying…

  17. I just looked up the agenda for tonight. What is GSG again? And are we paying them $50,000 for? My son’s guidance counselor is getting fired and this Council is hiring a management consultant on top of having a manager?? Next thing you know, we will be footing the bill for the Council’s personal therapist. Unbelievable!

  18. Why is Peter Yacobellis shushing and denigrating the public during PUBLIC comment? It is inappropriate and violative of our constitutional rights. Freedom of speech! I will vote for Putin before I vote for Peter.

  19. @ Geronimo,

    Well, someone has to raise the children attending these sessions of adults behaving badly.

  20. I’ve attended and spoken at TC meetings. I’ve seen Yacobellis at other public forums in town. Apart from all else political, etc, he imparts a distinct aura of disingenuousness and lack of transparency. Additionally, no one likes being condescended to, which he has a habit of doing. For all of his experience in public life, he still has not figured out the importance of sincerity and authenticity. Say all you want about Russo’s stridence, the guy is genuine!

  21. ChungAAPI — Actually, the Council has hired their own psychotherapists with taxpayer money. Below are the website descriptions of 2 of the 3 Culturupt team members. After the Council’s recent (and not so recent) performances, it may not be a bad idea.

    Tracey Gutierrez, Career Coach
    After spending over 15 years in various executive corporate jobs, Tracey realized she was missing something essential from her life. Deeply confused and distressed, she sought help from a coach. Through coaching, she reawakened her passion for living each moment to the fullest. Tracey now dedicates her life to helping others reconnect with their passions to live deeply fulfilling, joyful lives. Tracey is a Certified Professional Coach accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). She is also an authorized facilitator of Now What?® career coaching. She holds a Masters in Business Administration and has worked in sales, advertising, media, marketing, consulting and research for Univision Communications, Azteca America, Liberman Broadcasting, StarMedia Network, LoBue Associates (and now defunct RespondTV and Strategis Group).

    Blue Chevigny, LCSW, MPH
    Blue Chevigny, LCSW, MPH is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York and New Jersey who utilizes an eclectic mix of theories, including psychodyamic, cognitive-behavioral,and mindfulness-based systems principles. She’s treated scores of children, adolescents and adults, individually and in family and couples treatment, striving with each to create an opportunity for clarity, relief and development. She believes therapy can help us slow down and be in the moment and embodied in our feelings in ways that bring clarity to our own patterns and to our own potential. Working in a team with Tracey and Ritu allows different points of view to come into the work with groups in workplaces, and the interdisciplinary approach adds a new layer of complexity and depth to working on ourselves in collaboration with others.

  22. On 6/10/2021 the MEA’s position on the 2021-2022 staffing:

    “The district has only offered ‘budget deficits’ as the rationale for these draconian cuts. However, the Montclair Public Schools are not in a financial deficit. The district has more than enough money coming in from tax revenues and federal grant monies to sustain its staffing and maintain programming,” the MEA wrote.”

  23. Mr. Karasick – I am joining filpside above in a moment of laughter. I was was having tea while reading and it came out my nose.

    I looked up Culturupt online. Looks like a shady outfit, no physical address, no phone number, not even an email (that I can see). If we really needed an HR firm to stabilize things, there are REAL companies out there, like McKinsey, BCG, Bain, and many others, with hundred of seasoned HR professionals. Culturupt is a joke. And we’re paying them $560/hour, according to the contract that was attached to the resolution! Please.

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