Divisiveness? Campaign funding? Montclair CGI forum takes on elected vs. appointed school board
By TALIA WIENER
With just days left before residents decide the matter, community leaders and other advocates continued their debate over whether Montclair should have an appointed or elected school board Thursday night, in a symposium hosted by Montclair High School’s Civics and Government Institute.
The event was held in the MHS auditorium and livestreamed. Note: This account omits details from the first half-hour, due to audio issues with the stream.
The symposium was held less than a week before the Nov. 2 election, when Montclair voters will be asked in a binding referendum: Should Montclair retain its Type I school system with a mayor-appointed Board of Education of seven members that has served it for decades, or should it become a Type II district with an elected Board of Education of nine members? Only 3% of New Jersey districts use an appointment system.
MHS seniors Talia Yustein and Caleb Levine moderated the symposium, and CGI members asked the panelists a series of eight questions focused on how a school board type affects the district's budget, community unity and board representation.
CGI is one of four small learning communities at the high school, and focuses on the study of citizenship, government and social issues.
The panelists were Deputy Mayor and Board of School Estimate chairman Bill Hurlock, founder of Vote Montclair (the group that successfully petitioned to put the question on the ballot) Erik D’Amato, League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area representative and Nutley High School teacher Katie Toledano, and former Mayor and current Councilman Bob Russo.
D’Amato is in favor of a Type II district. Toledano and Russo are both in support of keeping Montclair a Type I district. Hurlock said Thursday he remains undecided.
Junior Anna Brubaker asked panelists: Given that many candidates use personal money for campaign funds, would changing to a Type II district give certain candidates an unfair advantage, or discourage people from running?
Montclair will have “continual campaigning, continual spending of money and the continual influence of political people who might want to dominate the school board,” Russo said. A campaign to become a board member would cost between $10,000 and $15,000, he estimated.
“We don't want to see just people who have the money, people of wealth,” Russo said. “We want to see the average Montclair residents and those without means participate. I think they might be discouraged by the cost.”
Russo had previously told Montclair Local he saw multiple sides of the debate. When the news organization reached out to several local mayors for their views, he responded: “The pros of a Type I district are obviously the ability to shape policy for our public schools by appointing the right people who were as committed as I was to public education, and to be able to influence the budget process as chair of the BoSE. However, the potential abuses or errors that can occur if the wrong choices and appointments are made have led me to have an open mind on requests for an elected BOE.”
He said this week while he continues to favor a Type I board, proponents of the Type II system had good points to consider.
Toledano echoed Russo’s concern about the possibility of political and financial domination of the board.
“Sometimes having a lot of money behind a certain candidate can foster a person pushing forward their own agenda,” Toledano said.
The board should reflect the interests of the students in the district, not those of an individual or entity, she said.
“We want our children to see themselves reflected as adults in the people that are making the decisions on their behalf,” Toledano said. “We want this board to have a mixture of abilities to handle the issues the school faces.”
The concern of financial influence is ever present, D’Amato said. Changing district type in Montclair will not eliminate that, but could help it to decrease by moving the power from the mayor to the people, he said.
“Money is an issue always,” D’Amato said. “We think it's going to be more of an issue if the mayor is appointing than if we just had citizens running and doing their own campaigning.”
The conversation then turned to the topic of divisiveness, with a question from senior Robeson Amory.
Vote Montclair and other proponents of an elected board have argued the current system — where a single mayor appoints board members — is more vulnerable to the influence of campaign cash than an elected one would be. They say it’s harder for special interests to target nine elections spread out over three years than a single election. Vote Montclair has pointed to the example of current Mayor Sean Spiller’s 2020 campaign, which far outspent opponent Renee Baskerville with the help of significant funding from the New Jersey Education Association, where Spiller is an officer (its vice president during the campaign, and now its president).
“How do you think your preferred system will promote town unity?” Robeson asked.
Boards all over the country, at local, state and national levels are fraught with divisiveness, Hurlock said. Conflict can arise during elections in Type II districts but also when community members seeking board appointments don’t get their way in Type I districts, he said.
“Unfortunately, we are a very divided society,” Hurlock said. “I hope at some point, although I don't see it with the way social media works, we overcome these differences.”
With a Type II board, divisiveness in Montclair will not automatically disappear, D’Amato said. But an elected board provides a better framework for unity than one that is appointed, he said.
“I think [Type II] actually could end up being a little bit better because once people are enfranchised and they get to vote, they feel like, OK, my voice has been heard,’" D’Amato said. “That tends to actually lower the tension and the divisiveness in many cases.”
Toledano advocated for a committee to advise the mayor on school board candidates and for electing a mayor who agreed to abide by the committee’s choice. The League has suggested that model, though proponents of an elected board note a mayor could disregard or disband any such committee.
Russo told Montclair Local he also favors an advisory board, also citing a suggestion by Baskerville (herself a former school board and council member) that a pool of appointees be narrowed through a caucus and advisory commission before being confirmed by the Township Council. New Jersey's Title 18a, which sets up structures for school district types, doesn't provide for such a system.
“Boards all over the country are fraught with divisiveness and inconsistencies and in some cases what looks to be almost the beginning of a civil war,” Toledano said. “This would provide transparency and community involvement and accountability.”
The change to Type II would eliminate Montclair’s separate Board of School Estimate, which approves school budgets, and reviews and fixes costs for capital improvements before they go to the Township Council for bonding. Bonding measures would go to voters — which advocates of an appointed board worry could mean tax-sensitive property owners could tank spending. The school board itself would usually pass its own budgets, but they’d be sent to voters if they exceed a 2% year-to-year cap on property levy growth.
Many of the issues were discussed as well in earlier forums organized by Montclair Local and Councilman David Cummings, who is a former school board member and now sits on the Board of School Estimate.
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 2. Early voting continues at several Essex County sites through Sunday, and mail-in ballots can be dropped off at drop boxes or postmarked any time through 8 p.m. on Election Day.