By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

This story has been updated to include comments from additional individuals planning to run for the March Montclair Board of Education election.

Nine Montclair residents have submitted petitions to run this March for two new seats on the Montclair Board of Education, according to a list provided by the local League of Women Voters.

The list was provided by the League after district Business Administrator Nicholas Cipriano said he couldn’t give Montclair Local the names until candidates’ eligibility had been verified. But the list was provided to the League by district central office secretary Sonya Rold Tuesday, Jan. 18, the day petitions were due.

The New Jersey School Boards Association — citing a 1989 case law, the Open Public Records act and Government Records Council rulings — says nominating petitions appear to be public records. But it notes the GRC hasn’t ruled they must be provided immediately on request. Montclair Local submitted a public records request for the petitions Jan. 14, but New Jersey law gives the district seven business days to respond. 

Voters will choose from the candidates in a special election March 8, to fill terms that will end in January of 2024 after Montclair’s recent conversion from a Type I school district with a mayor-appointed board of seven members to a Type II district with an elected board of nine. 

The individuals submitting petitions are: Yvonne Bouknight, Melanie Deysher, Phaedra Dunn, Jerold Freier, Noah Gale, Lauren Q. Griffin, Holly Shaw, George C. Simpson and Jennette L. Williams.

None of the individuals who’d asked to be considered to replace board member Dr. Alfred Davis Jr. after his Dec. 12 death are running for the newly created seats. On Jan. 12, the Montclair Board of Education chose parent Monk Inyang to fill that seat through the remainder of Davis’ term. That seat and two others will also be up in November, for terms starting in January of 2023, under a new cycle that puts three board seats up for election every fall.

So far, Montclair Local has only been able to reach some of the individuals who have submitted petitions. 

Gale, a Montclair High School graduate and Montclair State University student, was the first to announce a candidacy for the Montclair Board of Education — declaring his intentions even before voters opted to give Montclair an elected board. If elected, Gale would be the youngest person ever to serve on the board and the first college student on the board. 

Gale, who graduated from MHS in 2018, supports upgrades to the district’s HVAC system. But board members will only be able to move forward if they are respectful and mindful of each other, and “come together as one big family,” Gale said. 

While the board proposed a bond for extensive HVAC and other structural work to the district’s Board of School Estimate last year, talks stalled out before the switch to the Type II system disbanded the BoSE. Now, any such project would have to be approved by voters in a referendum; current board members have said that won’t happen before November of this year.

As a board member, Gale said he would look to ensure that the district hires kind teachers. He also said he would also push for introducing a system that allows students to anonymously rate teachers at the end of each school year.

“It is important for students to have nice teachers who are warm-hearted and nurturing, whether it is kindergarten, fifth grade, or even their senior year of high school,” Gale said. 

Gale also said he’d introduce a policy of having the district cover all field trips costs, to ensure all students could experience trips regardless of financial ability. He said he’d have students learn who their teachers for a coming year would be on the last day of the prior year, instead of over the summer.

Two other candidates — Melanie Deysher and Phaedra Dunn — are backed by Vote Montclair, the group that successfully petitioned to put a referendum on the November ballot asking if Montclair should have an elected board.

Deysher has been a strong advocate for literacy, particularly advocating for those with dyslexia, former Montclair Board of Education member and Vote Montclair member Sergio Gonzalez told Montclair Local. Deysher, though reached by Montclair Local, said she was not yet available for an interview. 

Dunn is a licensed therapist who, after working for years in charter schools, has become an opponent of charter schools, Gonzalez said. She is also one of the co-founders of Montclair Moms of Color, a group created in 2019 that says on its Facebook page it aims to create  “an inclusive, common and comfortable support system for moms of color.”

Dunn has not yet responded to messages sent to her personal email since Jan. 13. 

With the Vote Montclair backing, the two candidates’ petitions were signed by several community leaders, including Montclair NAACP education committee chair Diane Anglin (who spoke in favor of an elected board at a Montclair Local forum), Montclair Police Department Lt. Tyrone Williams Jr., and Township Civil Rights Commission chair Christa Rapoport, Gonzalez said. 

Bouknight, a former district parent, is also an educator with more than 40 years of experience. She has taught in East Orange, Irvington, Plainfield and most recently worked as a reading specialist in Glen Ridge before her retirement in 2018. 

“As a board member, you have to place yourself in the middle and you have to see both sides,” Bouknight said. “It's important that you keep an open mind.”

Bouknight said she is running for a seat because she wants to ensure all Montclair students have equitable access to education. 

“Looking at the whole child is really important to me, [as is] seeing what can be done in order to make them successful in the classroom,” Bouknight said. “Some children may just need help with reading. Some children may need help with math, and some children may need social and emotional support in order to achieve.”

The Montclair Board of Education has “showed stamina” in its work during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bouknight said. But she said there’s room for improvement in the board’s communication. She said she would push to better inform the whole Montclair community, not just parents, about school news.

Shaw said she would prioritize the learning loss and mental health toll associated with the coronavirus pandemic, and come up with solutions to help students succeed. Shaw has been a Montclair resident for seven years and currently has three children attending Montclair schools at elementary, middle and high school levels.  

She holds a diploma in wine and spirits from the Wine Spirits Education Trust and currently writes for various publications as an expert in the field.  

Shaw told Montclair Local she wants to see more accountability and transparency, and wants to “rebuild the relationships between Montclair’s teachers, parents, administration and the board.”

“We are all in this together,” Shaw said. “Open and honest communication is the key to our success.” 

As a board member, Shaw said she would also work to improve the district’s special education program and tackle action items outlined in an audit of the district’s program; that audit found racial disparities in how often children are classified as needing services, problems with communication and uneven experiences across the district’s schools.

She said she “knows first-hand the challenges in identifying and getting resources for children with learning disabilities.”  

Shaw has advocated for the opening of Watchung School playground and is a member of the school’s PTA. She is also active in the fundraising for the Montclair Skate Park at Rand Park and volunteers with Montclair Emergency Services for the Homeless. 

Simpson, a J.P. Morgan wealth management senior copywriter and a freelance creative director, said he’s been “incredibly disappointed” with the board since his own children started school — citing stairway collapses in Montclair High School and saying “the finger-pointing that ensued was a nauseating embarrassment.” 

He said he aimed to be the “kind of active, accountable board member parents, kids and teachers need right now.” He said his solution-finding experiences as a creative director would be helpful bringing together the interests of parents, teachers and students. 

He said the board’s biggest challenges are “self-inflicted,” chalking much of that up to the previous appointment system as one that held members accountable to the mayor, rather than the community. He said he’d like to see board members meet privately and informally with teachers and administrators twice a year to assess needs and solve problems together. 
Griffin is a long term substitute at Northeast School who has worked in public and private schools in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. She said she hopes that her presence on the Board would "give volume to the voice of educators" and "find the place where students and teachers thrive."

"I have spent too long listening to complaints about our great town's schools," Griffin said. "I want to be on the inside to help make decisions and changes that could make the strength of our schools mirror the strength of our town's reputation as a progressive and intellectual community."

COVID-19 is the board's biggest challenge, Griffin said. The pandemic exposed cracks within the Montclair school system — communication and clarity have been "brutalized" and untimely decision making has "destroyed faith" in district leadership, she said.

"This board needs to restore order and certainty and take Montclair through Covid successfully, rather than as a cautionary tale for other towns," Griffin said. "Montclair needs to be recognized for its educational rigor, inclusion, and diversity, instead of for its shortcomings."

Griffin has also served on the Northeast PTA and School Action Team.

Williams is education director of the League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area and has worked for the school district in many roles — teacher, substitute teacher trainer, grant writer and more.

"I am running for a seat on the Montclair Board of Education because I believe education is the heart of democracy, and I want to have a seat at the table where the creative energy of democracy has an opportunity to flourish," Williams said. "An educated community thinks not of me, myself, and I, but of we and why."

The biggest challenge facing the board is maintaining a program for the mental health of students and staff, Williams said. Parents need to know what resources are available to their children, she said.

"Trauma has become part of our community’s family, and it needs to be addressed," Williams said.

Freier is a Montclair State University hospitality and tourism adjunct professor. Montclair Local sent Freier a message by email Tuesday and is awaiting a response. See this story at MontclairLocal.news for further updates.

The League of Women Voters has announced its aim to hold a candidates forum on Thursday, Feb. 17.