‘Board’ already? Having an elected Montclair BOE may be harder than it looks (On the Other Hand)
By RICHIE CHEVAT
For Montclair Local
As a very wise and prescient voice (okay, this column) recently warned you, having an elected school board means you’re going to have to pay attention, people!
Well, the first school board election since Montclair residents opted to give up the system of mayoral appointment to the board is upon us, on March 8, and I get the feeling that paying attention you are not.
Here’s a test. Who among the following is not a candidate for the Montclair school board in the election, which will fill two newly created seats: Dorothea Brooke, Edward Casaubon, Tertius Lydgate, Mary Garth, Rosamond Vincy, Will Ladislaw, Elinor Cadwallader, Nicholas Bulstrode, Jane Waule?
Don’t know? It was a trick question. Those are all names of characters in George Eliot’s 1871 masterpiece, "Middlemarch." (Note to self: read "Middlemarch.")
Let’s try again. Which of the following is not a candidate: Yvonne Bouknight, Melanie Deysher, Phaedra Dunn, Jerold Freier, Noah Gale, Lauren Q. Griffin, Holly Shaw, George C. Simpson, Jennette L. Williams?
Wrong again! It was another trick question. They’re all candidates.
This elected school board thing may be harder than it looks.
Lucky for you, the League of Women Voters is holding a candidate’s forum on Thursday, Feb. 17, from 7 to 9 p.m., broadcast live on Channel 34, YouTube, and Radio Free Montclair. You can even submit questions in advance if you register at the League’s homepage, lwvmontclairarea.org.
What questions? Sadly, if you want to learn something useful, you already have to know something useful. You have to know, for example, about the pressing short-term problems like staffing issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic, falling attendance due to the pandemic, and also, you know, the pandemic. Also, there’s the matter of replacing the schools’ HVAC systems. One consultant put the cost at $26 million back in 2020, and now the board is mulling $15.5M or more for an upcoming bond — which sounds like a lot, but not if you’re a freezing student wearing a coat inside your classroom.
And then there are the long-term problems, like the achievement gap. Five years ago (in the Before Times) a special panel found a wide gap between white and Black students in Montclair schools. Five years on, the problem remains largely unchanged.
Maybe you should ask about that.
Some other things you might be curious about: How to replace the generation of baby boomer teachers who, done in by remote learning, are joining the Great Resignation. How to replace the aging curriculum of Montclair schools. How to balance the use of technology with human-centered education (again, teachers). Also, you might ask why the Board of Education isn’t communicating to us on a regular basis, so we don’t have to ask all these stupid questions?
Don’t bother asking about the budget or class size or teacher pay, the stuff that might make dramatic changes in the quality of our kids’ education. (Also, the stuff most people really care about because it has to do with money and taxes and, well, money.) The school board has no control over capital improvements like HVAC, which would have to pass a town-wide referendum. Even the budget could go to a public vote, if the board wants to grow it enough year over year. (Another vote! Yay!)
It turns out the school board deals with boring stuff like, you know, how to balance the use of technology with human-centered education. It sets general policy goals, picks the superintendent, and then tries to make sure its policies are carried out. (Another question: how come in the last 10 years we've had six superintendents or interim superintendents?) Unlike say, writing an opinion column for the Local, being on the school board requires more than the ability to gas bag about stuff of which you know next to nothing. You must have a grasp of the details, the nuts and bolts of how children learn in school.
I’ll be listening for candidates who can show they have that knowledge, who have long experience and deep knowledge of how school districts run and the specific problems facing Montclair. On top of that, I’ll be looking for candidates who share my values.
Every single candidate says they believe in public education. Chances are they mean it. But it’s not enough to say you believe in public education or to say you want to ensure equal opportunity. Ensuring equal opportunity requires taking into account the inequality that exists among students, the vast differences in family resources and preparedness. Equal opportunity means giving each student what they need to overcome those inequalities and succeed. A good school board candidate will believe that is an absolute responsibility of the schools and the citizens of Montclair
Still, all of this is probably moot because the election, held on a random Tuesday in March, seems designed to insure a ridiculously low turnout. How low? Best estimates here at On the Other Hand are between 9 and 35 (allowing for family members and close friends). But as you can tell, we are a totally cynical bunch. Maybe you can prove us wrong.
You are planning to vote, aren’t you?
Richie Chevat is a writer, activist and Montclair resident for more than 30 years. He’s the author of the comic sci-fi novel “Rate Me Red,” the play “Who Needs Men?” and the young reader version of “A Queer History of the United States,” among other works. He can often be seen running errands around town on his bike.