A petition’s organizers say they have enough signatures to force a ballot question asking if Montclair should continue to have an appointed school board — or if it should have an elected one, as most New Jersey communities do.

It’s a question Montclair voters have been asked in five previous referendums since the 1960s, and they’ve opted to keep an appointed board each time. The most recent referendum question, in 2009, was defeated 57% to 43%.

But representatives of Vote Montclair said they expected to submit their petition to the municipal clerk Wednesday, April 28, with about double the number of signatures required.

The petition, launched Feb. 27, passed the required 1,020 signatures last month, Vote Montclair founder and campaign co-chair Erik D’Amato said. To place a matter on a ballot, a petition must have a number of signatures equaling 15% of the total votes cast in the last election in the municipality.

As of Monday afternoon, D’Amato said, the group had collected 1,775 electronic and 175 paper petitions “that are really clean,” as well as a few potentially faulty ones he was seeking to get “cured” before submission. The group was continuing final work to collect names, weed out duplicates and verify submissions. In all, he hoped to have in excess of 2,000 signatures by the time the petition was presented to the clerk.

Under Montclair’s form of government, the mayor appoints board members. In Montclair’s case, that’s Sean Spiller, who is also the vice president and incoming president of the statewide New Jersey Education Association teachers union — which critics have argued is a conflict of interest, as the school board negotiates employment matters with union members.

But campaign co-chair Jason Sargis said the work behind the petition began years ago.

“This is a voting rights issue,” Sargis said. “Empowering the people is not a bad thing unless you are a bureaucrat who stands to lose the power.” 

Once the petition is submitted, the township clerk reviews it and verifies whether signatures are valid. If the clerk certifies the petition, the township would then put the question before voters at the next general election.

If voters were to approve the measure, they’d also add two more members to the current seven-member board. Montclair’s Board of School Estimate, a separate body that votes on the school budget and sets its tax levy, would be eliminated. Typically, the mayor sits on the Board of School Estimate, but a judge ruled in 2015 then-Councilman Spiller couldn’t, after a group calling itself Montclair Kids First sued, alleging a conflict. The group’s members include Matthew Frankel, now a member of Montclair Local’s governing board. Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock this year was appointed to the seat normally assigned to the mayor.

Most of the signatures were collected electronically due to concerns of coronavirus exposure during door-to-door petitioning. 

The first electronic signature-gathering petition in the state, also in Montclair and regarding its  rent-control ordinance, has faced a months-long court battle over the verification of signatures since they were first submitted in October 2020. 

“There’s been a deliberate decision to stretch this out so we can reach more people,” D’Amato said. “And so we can also submit a volume of petitions that’s kind of overwhelming so the township doesn’t try to disqualify enough petitions to disqualify the whole effort.” 

Montclair is currently one of just 11 Type I school districts in New Jersey, meaning the mayor appoints school board members. The rest of the roughly 600 school districts in the state are Type II, with voters electing the members of the school board. Districts can change between types if the school board passes a resolution to put the question to voters or if a petition is submitted and then the change is approved by voters. 

The League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area has said it supports an appointed board. In a Jan. 27 letter to Montclair Local, the League shared concerns about the power of special interests influencing an elected board, and argued that the cost of running and time commitment could be too much for some members of the public interested in serving.
“Intuitively, it seems more democratic to vote for your policymakers, but it is not necessarily the American way,” the League letter states. “Our mayor hopefully will select the best people, with the best skills, to represent all parts of town based on recommendations, and in consultation with the other town councilors.”

Spiller has not yet responded to a message seeking comment.

Councilman Peter Yacobellis, in a recent town hall, said if a referendum on an elected board were to take place, he'd host a forum giving those on all sides of the debate a chance to present their cases. He told Montclair Local Tuesday he's in talks with Vote Montclair, the League of Women Voters, and other community organizations and leaders on the matter.